For those who had any doubt, New Orleans Hillel Assistant Director Jody Portnoff wants to set the record straight.
"New Orleans is back. Tulane is back," she proudly proclaimed.
After the first week of classes at Tulane University, one of several local universities served by the Hillel Foundation of New Orleans, Portnoff, her colleagues and students are relishing their return to campus. When Hurricane Katrina forced city residents to evacuate in late August, students were scattered to colleges around the country for the fall semester as Tulane picked up the pieces of the damaged campus. Rebuilding is far from over. The campus and surrounding areas still lack many dining and shopping options, and many students returned to their dorms to find their belongings damaged or stolen. Nevertheless, the campus atmosphere is still overwhelmingly optimistic, Portnoff said.
"Students are resilient. They say, 'It's just stuff. I'm just happy to be back,'" she said.
New Orleans Hillel, which sustained some water damage and is currently renovating the lower level of its building, has put out the welcome mat as well. The homecoming began with training for the Hillel Orientation Coordinators, upperclassmen who help their younger peers adjust to campus life. The HOCs were on hand at the two Hillel open houses for students and parents, and they also attended a Shabbat reception at the home of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Board of Directors member Julie Wise Oreck, which drew hundreds of attendees, including the wife of Tulane University President Scott Cowen and university administrators.
"It was a great way to show parents that the community is rebuilding," said Paige Nathan, the executive director at New Orleans Hillel.
A welcome-back barbecue last week, the first of a regular series of Wednesday-night dinners at New Orleans Hillel, proved so popular that event organizers ran out of food.
"We had incredible attendance. People were pouring in and spilling out the front of the building. They were still coming at 8 p.m., when the barbecue was scheduled to end," Portnoff said.
The focus turned to community service a few days later, when New Orleans Hillel joined area campuses to sponsor Outreach New Orleans, which Portnoff described as "a mitzvah day times 100." Students could choose to participate in a wide variety of service projects throughout the city, and New Orleans Hillel partnered with Soaringwords, an international online support network for sick children and their families, to decorate pillows and quilts for young hospital patients. The 55 students who participated – Jewish and non-Jewish, from Tulane and beyond – not only appreciated the chance to get to know one another while they worked, but they also took pride in helping to comfort ailing kids.
"It gave me a chance to be creative and make something to brighten a child's life. It made me feel all 'fuzzy' inside," one participant wrote in her evaluation of the project.
The jam-packed schedule of activities gave the New Orleans Hillel professionals many opportunities to meet new students and reunite with returning upperclassmen, many of whom are clamoring for more Hillel activities.
"I've already got people coming up to me and asking, 'When's the next event?' said Portnoff, who is the process of developing a post-Katrina student advisory board to help her plan future programming. "I'm exhausted, but it's a different kind of exhaustion than I felt during our preparations. It's a feel-good tired. The students' energy has revitalized me."