Hurricane Katrina has turned Baton Rouge, La., into a booming Jewish community and Louisiana State University into a growing center of Jewish campus life.
Hillel at Louisiana University was already on an upswing before the storm, says faculty advisor Dan Novak, an assistant professor in the English department. The expected influx of students from New Orleans provided him with an additional opportunity to boost Jewish campus life.
"I thought, let's try and find the students who have been evacuated and who need help and solace," he explained.
Novak contacted Hillel's Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center to get a list of students at New Orleans-area colleges, and he officially affiliated his Hillel with the Soref Initiative for Emerging Campuses, which allowed him to tap into new financial resources and professional support. Hillel Vice President for Campus Advancement Rob Goldberg visited Baton Rouge to assess the campus's needs.
"They were immediately excited to help us and come down, and it exploded from there," Novak said.
The Baton Rouge Jewish Federation provided extensive support to the fledgling Hillel and found accommodations for Hillel of New Orleans Development and Marketing Associate Lila Pinksfeld, who has joined the LSU Hillel team as the interim program director while her own universities are closed.
"The students here are amazing. They pretty much created Hillel because they wanted it," said Pinksfeld, who works out of LSU's Office of Multicultural Affairs two days a week.
Second-year graduate student Moshe Cohen, the Hillel board treasurer, helped plan the recent Sukkot activities. More than 50 students attended the first Sukkot event, an "overwhelming number" for Hillel at LSU, Cohen said, and even the sukkah itself is helping raise awareness of the campus Jewish community.
"It's just doing fantastic things for our visibility, especially since we lack a physical presence on campus, like a Hillel building or house for [Jewish fraternity] Sigma Alpha Mu," Cohen said. "Now we joke that you can't walk around campus without seeing another Jewish student."
The presence of hurricane evacuees in Baton Rouge has pushed tzedek, social justice, programs high on the LSU Hillel agenda. Hillel student leaders have become regular volunteers at the Baton Rouge Boys and Girls Club, which serves many young hurricane survivors, and are even planning a camp for child evacuees during their winter break.
"We want to do anything we can to help mitigate the trauma these kids have gone through," Novak explains.
LSU Hillel professionals and student leaders are optimistic about the future of Jewish life on their campus. Novak is in the middle of organizing events with members of nearby Jewish youth groups and their parents to encourage them to consider LSU when it comes time to choose a college.
"We want to start making LSU the hub for youth groups in the area. We want them to see LSU expanding its Hillel and present it a good option for Jewish students," Novak said.