Posted by: Julian Sandler, Chairman on 3/27/2007 6:10:00 PM
The phrase from the Haggadah “let all who are hungry come and eat” has new meaning for me this year. Last week, when I was working with Hillel students rehabilitating a home in New Orleans, the homeowner insisted on cooking us lunch. This woman of modest means -- who has not regained her footing after losing all of her worldly belongings in hurricanes Katrina and Rita – wanted to demonstrate her gratitude by preparing a meal for our entire crew. It was a substantial expense for her -- and she has nothing to spare. That one simple gesture speaks volumes about the tragedy of New Orleans and the important work that Hillel is doing there.
With funding from the UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities, Hillel will bring 600 students to New Orleans this year to help the forsaken residents of New Orleans’ devastated neighborhoods. By the end of this school year, Hillel will have sent 1400 young people to the Gulf.
I traveled to New Orleans to participate in Hillel’s Board of Directors meeting and to join with students in a day of service. The devastation wrought by last year’s hurricanes remains profound in many neighborhoods. Assigning blame for the abandonment of these residents is irrelevant. The fact remains that 18 months after the storms, many homes are still unlivable, and their residents are consigned to FEMA trailers. Home-repair contractors are hard to come by, if homeowners can afford them at all.
Our Hillel students brought a ray of hope to this landscape of despair. They are treated as heroes. Passing buses slowed down to ask if students were on spring break and then they gave us the “thumbs-up” sign. The homeowners are the most appreciative. “We are so happy that somebody bothered to do something for us,” said one peson.
This is not abstract social justice. This is hands-on community service in which the young people get to know the people they are helping. The students pour through living rooms and bedrooms, carting out water-damaged belongings that comprise a lifetime of memories, the intimate details of a family. They often work alongside the residents themselves.
Hillel helps the young people to put this work in the context of Jewish tradition by conducting Jewish learning sessions. We also expose them to local leaders and Jewish role models like Tulane President Scott Cowan. President Cowan’s single-minded devotion to restoring his university and city, informed by his commitment to Jewish values, is inspiring.
I am equally inspired by our students who have volunteered to give up their spring breaks to do something profound and important with their vacation. They are eager to put on their respirators, to pick up their tools, and to undertake work that is difficult and often unpleasant. Their enthusiasm is contagious. As I watched them work, I could almost see them grow as Jews and as human beings. “As one student told me, I knew this trip would have an impact on me, I just didn’t’ really how much of an impact it would have.” I guess that’s what Hillel is all about.
Best wishes for a meaningful Passover.
RE: A Ray of Hope in New Orleans
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