October 22, 2019

Building Dignity

Near railroad tracks and industrial buildings, Santa Ana’s East Adams Street is a modest neighborhood of stucco homes and spare yards distressed by late summer’s heat. From within a fenced lot, the discordant timpani of hammering disturb the quiet a block away.

Armed with hammers, tape measures and tool aprons, a swarm of inexperienced laborers energetically build framing for the interior walls of a new home. Overlooking bruised thumbs, sore muscles and sunburns, by week’s end the construction crew will bubble excitedly over their measurable progress that began with a bare foundation, said Thayne Smith, construction director for Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity.

“They’re way ahead of our expectations,” said Smith, even before the crew had completed its first day.

Using social action to create affordable housing, the construction crew consists of about 20 Jews drawn from Reform congregations around North America. They signed up months ago for an Orange County house-raising that began Aug. 15. The aim of the weeklong project on Adams Street, like last year’s in Vermont, is to build both a home for a needy family and a community among a group of common faith.

But with the High Holidays only weeks away, for some the project is also proving an unlikely source of spiritual preparation for the coming New Year and Day of Atonement.

“This gives me more personal insight into the working poor,” said Deborah Bock, of Los Angeles, who put aside her hammer for lunch and a seat in the partial shade of a construction trailer. “I work with my brain,” she said, a job difficult to compare to a typical day laborer.

The 26-year-old rabbinical student volunteered in order to pump volume into the abstraction of repairing the world, or more routine good works such as advocacy for Israel or raising money for the homeless.

“They’re not permanent. This is so much more concrete to work on the concrete slab,” she said.

Bock believes she will come away changed by the experience.

“We talk about a God that provides food and shelter, but it takes human intervention to take an active role to make it happen,” she said.

Throughout their stay, local synagogues provided lunch and dinner for the volunteers, whose home base was an airport hotel. Their number also included local congregants from Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek.

Issues of housing and poverty, extracted from the High Holiday liturgy, were also the group’s study and worship subjects. That message was further underscored toward the week’s end with daily roars from the shofar, heard throughout the month of Elul to rouse Jews to repent.

“The prophet Isaiah, in the Yom Kippur reading, asks us to fast to sensitize us to the ways of the poor,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, the Reform movement’s western regional director, who revised his planned teaching to lean more heavily on High Holiday themes.

The High Holidays were also on the mind of Jane Paterson, 50, of Calgary, Canada. Drinking in her own mid-century mark as a liberating elixir, Paterson is pursuing the postponed.

“Can you think of a better vacation?” Paterson asked, poised on a dirt mound.

“I’ll have fewer bread crumbs to throw in the river,” she predicted, referring to Tashlich, the widely celebrated custom of “throwing away” one’s sins into water before Rosh Hashanah

“It’s nice to use your muscles spiritually and physically for someone else,” added Toni Kennedy, 52, also of Calgary.

“Even if I never meet the people who live here, I know they’ll have a certain dignity I helped give them,” said another volunteer, Ginger Jacobs, 62, of Sherman Oaks.

Louis and Joyce Mogabgab, Santa Ana building contractors professionally, also signed on as volunteer supervisors.

“What amazes me is people without construction experience are accomplishing so much,” Joyce Mogabgab said, noting her own expertise is limited to phone and paperwork. “It gives me more appreciation for what my husband does.”

Habitat estimates that 90,000 people in Orange County live in substandard housing or are homeless. The group’s labor pool is more typically drawn from Christian groups working on weekends.

Few have experience, Smith said, “but everything is built well beyond the acceptable level of building.”

Smith said the four-bedroom Adams home is one of five currently under construction locally. The $136,000 lot was acquired with a federal government subsidy as well as reduced city fees. While Habitat requires 500 hours of sweat equity by each prospective owner, a family had not yet been selected for the Adams house, he said. A neighboring Habitat-built, five-bedroom home belongs to Maria and Rigo Gomez and their nine children. They previously rented a two-bedroom La Habra house.

“We try to be mission driven, to end poverty housing in Orange County,” said Joe Perring, a real estate developer and chairman of the local Habitat chapter, which builds 10 homes a year. “Urban affiliates have the dual challenge of fundraising and the scarcity of available land.”

“If we can find land, we can get the other resources,” he said. l