While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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Road Trip – Part Seven

Hurricane Katrina relief work in Mississippi February 2007

Hurricane Katrina relief work in Mississippi
February 2007

In February 2007, Jonah and I took a very special road trip together. It started in Philadelphia, where the two of us attended the biannual Convention of NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. I was on the faculty; he very much wasn’t. The Convention was fun for both of us, and even noteworthy due to my having observed Jonah at previous NFTY conventions where he struggled to find a level of comfortability among a gathering of 500 teens. By 2007 and 11th grade, however, he was “in the zone” and at the top of his social game. Jonah loved NFTY, he was friends with just about everybody, and the Convention was clearly the proverbial icing on his Jewish cake.

So when I told him we’d need to leave the Convention a day early, I’d expected more teen resistance. After all, kids wait two years for this gathering of friends from across North America and even the world. Nevertheless, Jonah didn’t bat an eye or hesitate even a moment before saying okay. While his friends would be spending another twenty-four hours together before heading home, he and I were flying down south to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, one of hundreds of towns that had buckled beneath a brutal beating from Hurricane Katrina a year and a half earlier (August 2005). The U.S. government had promised to help but their assistance was meager and disillusioning. Ordinary folks stepped in to lend a hand. Ocean Springs is only a few miles down the road from Biloxi where, soon after our arrival, we drove by a 500-year-old tree that had taken flight during the hurricane and landed in the middle of a three-story building. The destruction and despair we encountered there rattled us deeply. Houses that looked as if they’d been stepped on, and foundations that no longer even had houses, lined both sides of too many roads.

Swamp Team February 2007

Swamp Team
February 2007

Jonah eagerly joined the work crews, and he worked hard, lending a hand to anyone who asked, pulling nails out of water-ravaged boards so they could be used again for rebuilding, pulling down ruined parts of houses to make way for new construction, scraping and sanding salvageable walls, and much, much more. The messiest work by far was when they assigned us to a swamp, explaining that a number of houses had simply slid down the hills around it and we were to pull out as much as we could from this rather disgusting bog. Why not bring in bulldozers and the like? Because this was a fragile wetland and large equipment would destroy it. So timber by timber, shingle by shingle, even submerged family memory by family memory, we lifted out as much as we could. It would take years so we only retrieved a tiny bit of it, but I understand the teams eventually got it all. Jonah posed proudly for a photo in our pre-muck coveralls. And then he stepped in to do the work, just as proudly.

Besides the relief activities, Jonah and I shared some other great memories on this road trip. Bedding down in sleeping bags inside a house that had no lights and no heat. Breakfast with our work buddies at the Waffle House. Driving into Biloxi for Mardi Gras. Buying ridiculous and offensive hats there. And coming home with bags full of the beads thrown at us by occupants of the passing floats.

Some things Jonah did without me. He helped build an enormous bonfire in the backyard of the place we were staying. And I do mean enormous. It burned about “two Jonahs high.” He also made a lot of music with his new friends and his backpacker guitar. He eagerly interviewed on camera for a participant who was filming a documentary of our trip.

The Swagger February 2007

The Swagger
February 2007

And, of course, he swaggered. I’m not really sure where this came from. I suspect it evolved at a time when he was trying to act bigger than he felt. But by the time he was bigger, both physically and charismatically, the swagger had simply become a part of him. And it made him a study in contradictions. That swagger evoked a cool superiority that one might actually buy into if you’d never met the boy. Because superiority was definitely not Jonah’s thing, I can only conclude that he swagged to entertain. What he did, he did for joy and for others. And that swagger, and the personality behind it, was part of what I continue to love most about him.

Sometime during the trip, Jonah turned to a temple participant and fellow bonfire-builder Jay Werner and told him they should make a t-shirt for a future Katina Relief trip that would say, “We’re on a mission from God” (referencing Elwood Blues in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers). In 2012, that t-shirt got made. So it would seem Jonah got back down to the Gulf.

I love how Jonah continues to have an impact on people. In small ways, but ways that matter. One of the other kids who joined that trip to Mississippi in 2007 wrote, “Jonah, I only met you once. We went to Mississippi to help out Hurricane Katrina victims. We built homes and cleaned swamps. You were a great guy. You were strong and caring. We shared some laughs, and a few good stories. After one week, you left an impression in my mind that stuck pretty well. You had a lot of heart.”

2013.06.RoadTrip.BlogPostThat big heart of his continued to grow. During his freshman year at UB, Jonah told us that he was hoping to spend Spring Break ‘09 in New Orleans, continuing in college the Katrina relief work he’d done in high school. He never got the chance. But during his too-brief nineteen years, he made a profound impression on a lot of people. And I think that impression (like the Blues Brothers t-shirt) is helping to inspire others to do some good in the world – to treat others with goodness, and to lend a hand where we can.

Perhaps that’s the most important road trip of them all. Attaboy, Jo!

Billy

P.S. “Road Trip” is The Jonah Maccabee Foundation’s summer fundraiser for 2013. Remembering some of the fun Jonah had on these vacations, we’d like to help other kids to enjoy and to grow during their own childhood years. Please consider making your tax-deductible gift at jonahmac.org by Sunday, July 31. Okay, or any other time. Thank you.

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