Ask Tulane University students when they will return to campus, and they won't just give you the date that classes start - Jan. 17 - but they'll tell you exactly how many days away it is.
"Everyone is counting down," said sophomore Eric Thum, who relocated to Syracuse University for the semester.
"I'm just excited," said Megan Holstine, a sophomore who continued her studies at Cornell University this fall. "This semester has been a little stressful, but it made me appreciate Tulane more."
Like Thum and Holstine, hundreds of Jewish students at New Orleans-area campuses are eager to begin the spring semester back at their university after their plans for the fall were left behind in the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. After spending the semester at colleges around the country – and Israel – they are looking forward to treading familiar ground and reconnecting with friends and roommates. At the same time, they realize that their campuses and city have been forever changed, and the professionals at the Hillel Foundation of New Orleans will be there to help them adjust to the new environment.
"There is no road map for a situation like this," said Paige Nathan, the executive director of New Orleans Hillel. "We know it won't be exactly what they expect."
But if their work during their fall semester is any indication, Nathan and her colleagues will play an invaluable role in bringing the Jewish student community in New Orleans back together. From their temporary homes in places like Baltimore, New York and Shreveport, La., Nathan, Assistant Director Jody Portnoff and Development and Marketing Associate Lila Pinksfeld made sure that their students stayed in touch with their campuses and with one another while they were scattered around the country.
"Initially, we saw our role as to connect. It's been an interesting evolution over time," Nathan said.
A major component of New Orleans Hillel's outreach efforts this semester has been the "reunion road trip," in which Portnoff has traveled to several campuses across the country with a large population of Tulane students. After kicking off at Boston University in late October, the road trip has brought Portnoff to a long list of campuses, including Syracuse University, Cornell University, Harvard University, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. She also plans to visit campuses in Texas, Colorado, Florida and Georgia before semester's end.
"It was a lot of work, but I got a really positive response from the students I visited," Portnoff said. "They all sat down and gushed out their stories. They wanted to tell me all the details."
In addition to providing fun events for the students, the road trip also allowed Nathan and Portnoff to get to know the students better, especially those who first became involved to help plan the road-trip program and connect students to their Tulane schoolmates. Portnoff pointed to a Tulane student at Syracuse University as an example of someone who "went out of her way" to meet displaced freshmen on their temporary campus.
"She really rose to the occasion, and now I see her as a student leader," Portnoff said.
The New Orleans Hillel professionals will rely on those student leaders when the spring semester begins to help with program planning. While Portnoff has already scheduled an orientation program, women's Passover seder and weekly dinners, she plans on soliciting ideas and feedback from the students before filling the spring calendar.
"We can plan and plan, but we don't know what the students want from us yet," Portnoff said. "It depends on the needs of the student. I have lots of ideas, but I'm not a student."
"We'll need to help the students process their experience and give it some meaning," Nathan added. "We know the university is making a lot of preparations, and we want to be there to fill in some of the missing pieces."
Tzedek (social justice) work will probably be at the top of that list. Several Tulane students have already expressed interest in helping to rebuild the local community.
"I think the city is going to need a lot of help, and I love volunteer work," said Warren Cohn, a freshman who spent his first semester at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.
"It will be interesting to see how much we can do, community service-wise," Thum agreed.