Bay Area Jewish day school teacher and teens help Missouri tornado victims

On the evening of June 28, Batshir Torchio drove a rented van full of teenage girls along Interstate 44, heading toward Joplin, Mo. They had flown in to Oklahoma from San Francisco a few hours earlier, and their actual work — assisting those whose homes had been destroyed by the May 21 tornado — wouldn’t begin until the next morning. But the group was energized about the days ahead, and decided to go check out the volunteer dispatch site that night.

“The girls were all talking, we had the radio on, we were all excited to be there,” recalled Torchio, a Jewish studies teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, two weeks later. “And then as we got closer, we started seeing through the window a town that was just absolutely, completely leveled. We turned the radio off, we were speechless. And then we decided to pull off the road for a bit and say a blessing.”

It would be the first of many moments over the course of the next four days in which the group would be overcome by emotion at the sight of the tornado’s devastation.

About a month earlier, Torchio — currently a rabbinic student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California in Los Angeles — had been folding laundry at home, watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper talk to Joplin residents whose homes had been destroyed by the tornado, which killed more than 150 people and injured many more.

“The aftermath was just staggering, and I immediately thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to go down there and help out,’ ” she said. “There was no question. How often do you get the chance to actually put on your boots and do something in these situations?”

Torchio planned to leave June 28, the day after she finished rabbinical classes. Then she presented some information about the tornado to two groups of teen girls in the Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing program at Brandeis Hillel. She said, simply, “I’m doing this. Who wants to come with me?”


Volunteers Toby Harris (left) and Renee MacDonald at a clean-up site in Joplin, Mo.

The response was overwhelming. The BDHS community chipped in, as well as Kehilla San Francisco and several of the girls’ high schools;  many of the students also used what was left of their bat mitzvah money. After a few weeks of fundraising, they booked a flight for 12. Along for the journey were 10 girls, ages 14 through 16, all of them former or current students of Torchio’s, and another parent volunteer.


None of them would soon forget what they saw.

During the day, the girls helped pick through debris, clean out houses, sort donated clothing and distribute food to victims of the disaster and the scores of other volunteer relief workers. At night, back at their lodgings about 30 miles away in Miami, Okla., they talked about things they had seen and people they had met — and tried their best to process the concept of a completely random disaster that could, in an instant, destroy an entire community.

“I was expecting to see destruction, like what you saw in the news footage,” said Renee MacDonald, 16, an incoming junior at Jewish Community High School of the Bay and Torchio’s daughter. “But it completely exceeded my expectations. When you see it in person, you see people’s toys and pictures and clothes. It just makes it way more personal.”

MacDonald also recalled one day when, cleaning out a house with a few of the other girls, they were approached by a local man who asked what they had uncovered. “It turned out it was his son’s house, and we were able to give him his son’s high school yearbook and some baseball photos we had found,” she said. “It was incredible to be able to hand him those things in person.” The man was brought to tears.

The girls also spent time with other volunteers, spending mealtimes helping out at the Chow Train, a mobile food truck that normally serves the homeless, run by Joan Cheever and Pam Parish out of San Antonio, Texas. The pair brought the food truck to Joplin immediately after the tornado, and began serving free breakfast, lunch and dinner to the volunteers that had descended upon the area.

“We helped them set up, prep vegetables,” MacDonald said. “It was the kind of thing that seemed small, but if we weren’t doing it, someone else would have had to. It made you realize every little thing really helps.”

Toby Harris, 16, an incoming sophomore at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco who formerly attended BHDS, echoed the sentiment that the trip helped to humanize the disaster.

“When you’re cleaning up a lot, there’s a house that’s under 15 feet of rubble, and at first it’s just wood and dirt and it’s kind of scary,” she said. “But then you’ll see a teddy bear or a Santa hat … and you realize you’re really going through a person’s life.”

Torchio — who plans to return to Joplin in August — said she was “blown away” by the kindness with which they were welcomed into the community. “We would walk into a store to pick up a sandwich, and these are not places that are getting any business, and they’re going, ‘Please, take some water, take anything you want,’ ” she said. “It felt very similar to how people rose to the occasion in San Francisco after the earthquake in 1989.”


The rubble on Virginia Street in Joplin

And she was impressed by the girls’ stamina, especially on days when work began at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t end until well after dark.


Still, Torchio made sure to spend time talking with the girls about how they were feeling each day, encouraging them to take care of themselves “so that we could take care of others,” she said.

“It was emotionally draining,” said MacDonald, “because we did all walk away thinking, this could happen to us so easily.

“And I guess the way we got through that was recognizing that what we were doing was really important, and thinking about how much we take for granted.”

Harris said the connections she made with locals stand out most in her mind.

“I came into this trip with assumptions, honestly, about what that part of the country is like, what kind of people I would meet there. And I was completely wrong,” she said.

“I was treated with nothing but kindness, and we met so many wonderful people. And you realize, even though we might believe in different things, have different views in general, that’s not what matters when it comes down to it.

“Things like this bring so many people together,” she added. “It was such a horrific tragedy, but there is some good that can come out of it.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.