"This Says Something About Our Generation – We Care"
March 20, 2006Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend American University freshman Laiah Idelson is no stranger to tzedek (social justice) work. Beginning at age 12, when she helped build a school in Nicaragua, she has traveled all over the world to help strengthen underprivileged communities. But during her spring break this year, she's doing something a little different. Instead of traveling to a Third World country, she's doing the work right here in the United States – Gulfport, Miss., to be exact – as part of Hillel's Hurricane Katrina alternative-break program.
"I'm really excited to have the opportunity to do this in my own country," Idelson said. "The more I thought about it, it seemed like an amazing thing to do."
And Idelson isn't the only Jewish college student who feels that way. From March 12 to April 2, Hillel, in partnership with the Presbytery of Mississippi, is bringing 400 students from campuses across North America to Mississippi to help with the massive rebuilding effort near the Gulf Coast shores. Hillel's Weinberg Tzedek Hillel program, an international public-service and social-justice project, has organized the initiative with the help of the Sol Goldman Foundation, the MB & Edna Zale Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and United Jewish Communities. Another 300 students are also making a difference across the region with individual service projects sponsored by campus Hillels from Canada, New York, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and California.
Following in the footsteps of the 135 students who participate in Hillel's alternative-break program during winter break, the spring delegation is quickly learning how to use nail guns and shingle shovels as they repair and replace roofs on dozens of homes in Biloxi. Most, like Binghamton University senior Danielle Leeds, have no prior experience in construction but are on their way to becoming roofing mavens (experts).
"It's pretty simple, the concept. It's the kind of thing that the longer you do it, the better you get at it," Leeds said.
The residents of Biloxi can use all the fast learners they can get. Almost seven months after Hurricane Katrina battered the area, the degree of devastation is still evident throughout the region. Students say they were amazed to see the amount of debris that remains.
"The city is destroyed. It's absolutely horrible," said Shai Ronan, a junior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"It is overwhelming, and I knew it was going to be hard to see, but I didn't expect it to be like this," Idelson added.
Many students are working on homes that are currently uninhabited, but others have had the opportunity to speak with the homeowners and hear their hurricane-survival stories. The residents are quick to show their appreciation for the volunteers, providing them with food, drinks and many, many words of gratitude. Students report that many locals have thanked them for "giving up their spring breaks" to be there, but they don't consider exchanging swimsuits for a tool belt to be a sacrifice.
"I didn't look at it as 'giving up' my spring break. I view it more as 'this is what I did for spring break,'" Ronan said.
According to Stephanie Connell, the Steinhardt JCSC fellow at University of Florida Hillel, since Floridians are very familiar with hurricanes, her students were eager to come and help.
"Most students at the University of Florida are from Florida, and they can definitely relate to hurricanes. They've wanted to do something since Aug. 29," Connell said. "If this was our community, we'd want people to reach out and help us."
In addition to the work in Mississippi, participants are also taking one day out of their week to travel to New Orleans, where they get a firsthand look at the destruction throughout the city and meet with area students at the Hillel Foundation of New Orleans. Idelson was excited to be reunited with a Tulane University student who was temporarily enrolled at American during the fall semester and hear about her experiences in a city that is slowing pulling itself back together.
"She said that every day you see it get more and more improved. But just because it's being rebuilt doesn't mean that it's fine. It's a very slow process," Idelson said.
Since reconstruction will take many months – or years – to be complete, some students hope to volunteer again and encourage their family, friends and Jewish communities to join them. Leeds is hoping to come with a group from her hometown synagogue in Boston over the summer.
"It's impossible to fathom and comprehend what it means until you see everyone's possessions out on the street," Leeds said. "I don't think anything is more important than people coming here and seeing it and helping."