Hillel alternative winter break participant Samantha Bordoff, a sophomore from Hofstra University, caulks a window on a house in New Orleans.
Giving up the comforts of living at home or traveling to exotic destinations, 85 students from nine Hillel centers are spending their winter breaks in New Orleans Jan. 4-11 fixing up homes in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina just over three years ago.
University of Rhode Island (URI) freshman Betsy Cohen said that she’s proud to be spending her break volunteering.
"They can't afford to hire people to help rebuild their houses," she said. "I think it's a great opportunity for students to do something valuable with their time during their break and to do something for someone else."
Cohen said she didn't expect the area to still be as devastated as it is.
"There are some neighbors around the house we're working on, but in general it looks like something out of a movie scene. It's pretty dead," she said.
In addition to the New Orleans alternative winter break program, 42 students have been in Israel on Hillel's Alternative Break in Israel: Break New Ground program, volunteering with immigrants and foreign workers in Israel who tend to be underserved by most welfare and volunteer organizations.
In New Orleans, Hofstra University freshman Allison Meyer said she always enjoyed fixing her house growing up, which is one of the reasons why she came. She said while some students are a little more experienced than others, everyone wants to help.
"Their attitude is what’s important," she said. "They just want to look for places to help. They want to be shown what to do if they don’t know how."
Local residents are really appreciative of the work Hillel students are doing, Cohen said.
"It's a good team effort and it means a lot to these people here," she said. "A lot of people have driven by and honked their horns to thank us. It makes us feel really good."
Since Katrina hit the gulf coast region, Hillel has sent 2,285 students on alternative break tzedek programs to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, leaving a long lasting effect not only on the individuals the students help, but also on the students themselves.
Inspired by his experience on Hillel's alternative winter break trip to New Orleans last January, Hunter College junior Oleg Ozersky took a year off from school to work with Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
"There is a need down here for volunteers like myself and it was a good opportunity to get away from New York and live on my own and do my own thing," said Ozersky, who is a house coordinator on a site with two Hillels on alternative winter breaks in New Orleans. "I'm learning a lot."
For more information about Hillel's alternative break program, visit the Social Justice page.