Nineteen-year-old Josh Israel was a typical Portland teenager. He spent most of his time studying, watching television or playing video games with his friends. A graduate of Portland Jewish Academy and Riverdale High School, he says during his senior year he realized he wanted to do something different with his life. “I hadn’t done anything to help my community,” he explains.
So, while most high-schoolers were applying to universities, Israel searched for international community service opportunities. His mother, Roberta Kaplan, worried that some of these programs might pose a risk to his safety. She began to do her own research, and she soon discovered FEMA Corps, a 10-month residential service program for 18- to 24-year-olds. This new initiative, a product of a partnership among the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service and the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, gives young people hands-on experience in disaster preparedness and recovery. Members provide valuable support, logistics and information to disaster survivors and the public.
Initially, Israel balked at the idea of joining FEMA Corps, but he continued to think it over. “I realized that it would be a good opportunity to experience something new, so I said I’d do it.” Now, the teenager has embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime. He is currently helping victims of Hurricane Sandy and living aboard the Training Ship Empire State VI, which is docked in The Bronx, NY. When the teen originally signed up for the FEMA Corps program, he had no idea he would be on this particular mission. “I was assigned to the Vicksburg, Mississippi, campus. We did training but really didn’t know where they would send us. They don’t tell us too much until a couple days before we’re about to leave.”
Upon arrival in New York, he was assigned to live in a 156-person hold at the bottom of the training ship. “We lived there a week or two, and then FEMA Corps sent half of us to another ship. The half that was left went to eight-person rooms – an upgrade. So now, we have our own personal bathroom and shower, as well as free lodging and free food.” Initially assigned to community relations, Israel now serves on FEMA Corps’ logistics team. He prepares and takes inventories of trailers at the federal staging area in East Farmingdale. The trailers, which are transported to disaster victims, are stocked with commodities like ready-to-eat meals, water and cots. Israel is gradually seeing progress in the mission. “At the very beginning, we had a lot filled with trailers. Now, there are spaces missing – trailers have gone to places where survivors need these items. We have a set of numbers on a wall that represents the amount of commodities that have left the area. Our number is much bigger.”
Israel is finding the work, and the response from the public, very rewarding. “I was at lunch in my FEMA jacket, and someone came up to us and said, ‘Thank you very much. It is great seeing you guys just helping people out there.’ That was just a great feeling – it made the whole day fantastic.” The teenager’s newfound passion for the marine life is leading him toward an exciting future. “When I get back to Portland, I want to find a job in the business district moving commodities at a loading dock. After that,” he says with pride, “I want to join the Marine Corps.” In addition to steering Israel in a new direction, his FEMA Corps experience has deepened his connection with Judaism. While aboard his ship, he heard a woman remark that she was a Jewish mother. “I went over, apologizing that I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation, and said, ‘I’m a Jewish son.’”
Israel notes that sparked a plan to find a menorah and light it on the dock. “I realize how much being Jewish means to me.”
Former New Yorker Kerry Politzer is now a Portland freelance writer.