By Jeff Rubin
(Reprinted from the Washington Jewish Week.)
"Do you know why I'm wearing this thank-you button?" the woman asked me.
It was Saturday night and the exhibition hall at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly was open for the New Orleans Jewish community before the formal start of the conference the next day.
"I'm wearing this button to thank the organized Jewish community for its support in sustaining the New Orleans Jewish community after Katrina and restoring it to health. More than $28 million was given to this community for help here in New Orleans and in all of the communities where we moved, like Houston and Baton Rouge."
For me, attending the GA was the end of a story arc that began in August 2005 when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. At the time of the storm, I helped Hillel respond to the catastrophe: to ensure the welfare of our staff and students in New Orleans and to take the first steps in setting up alternative breaks for students to assist in the recovery efforts. I worked closely with our international staff and with New Orleans professionals and lay leaders.
In the days and weeks following Katrina we tried to create order from chaos. Tulane students were dispersed around the country and local Hillels were asked to welcome them. Our New Orleans Hillel director had to cope with damage to her home and the Hillel facility. Other Hillel staff dealt with their own personal and professional challenges.
The scale of the destruction was so severe that the future of this great city and its Jewish community were in doubt. Carol Smokler, a member of Hillel's International Board of Governors and Board of Directors, was the JFNA's emergency response chair. She visited my office one day and the burden of restoring Hillel and the Jewish community weighed heavily on her shoulders.
In the years since Katrina, I've had an intense long-distance relationship with New Orleans, working closely with the local Hillel staff on a number of projects. More than 4,000 Jewish students contributed their volunteer labor to restoring the region. Alas, I never had the opportunity to join them.
When I finally arrived in the Crescent City last week with 600 student participants, the city did not disappoint. In fact, it was more beautiful than I imagined. I drove from the French Quarter to the Garden District along St. Charles Street, passing through one pretty neighborhood after another. The 1940s-era trolleys added to the charm.
But Katrina's rampage was evident even to this tourist. The central areas are pockmarked with abandoned buildings, empty lots, and homes bearing spray-painted markings that describe the condition of the home and fatalities.
The city is well on its way to recovery. New Orleans Hillel will open its beautiful new building in the spring. A Hillel staffer who endured Katrina now directs a local Federation program and is expecting her first child. On the final day of my visit I helped ship our alternative break supplies to another location.
Speaking to the opening plenary of the GA, Carol Smokler said: "[Katrina relief was] the greatest success of our collective federation system since Operation Exodusâ€¦. I am so glad that you are all here to see the fruits of these effortsâ€¦"
I was pleased, indeed, to be in the number when the Jewish community went marching in.
Jeff Rubin, a resident of Columbia, MD, is associate vice president for communications with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.