Jewish Students Fight Devastation in the Gulf
April 10, 2006Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend Whether they were in Biloxi, Baton Rouge or New Orleans, Hillel students who gave up their spring vacations to do relief work in the Gulf region had eye-opening and life-changing experiences.
"After being so numb for so long from all the media, seeing the devastation firsthand re-opened my eyes to the tremendous amount of need and work still needed to be done in the Gulf Coast area," said University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign senior Jonathan Witten.
More than 700 Jewish students from across North America donned hazardous materials suits, lived in homeless shelters and spent days on rooftops as they confronted the lingering devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita during spring break trips to the Gulf region. Hillel, working with local partners of all faiths, was the largest Jewish provider of volunteers in the Gulf. (Photos, videos and news clips of the relief work may be viewed here.)
University of Pittsburgh freshman Meredith Mishkin was taken aback to see homes in New Orleans still marked with the number of bodies found inside.
"I've done community-service trips in other countries," Mishkin said. "The slums of Ghana or Belize could not match the destruction of the Ninth Ward. The situation is mortifying. I forgot I was in America. It was more foreign and isolating than we could have ever imagined."
When she presented a box of food to one resident, he responded, "You're an angel from God. Thank you."
Mishkin's University of Pittsburgh group spent their vacation restoring the homeless shelter in which they stayed and distributing food to the needy. Students from the University of Pennsylvania wore hazardous material suits as they removed mold from homes. A delegation of 28 Canadian students and Hillel professionals joined with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild a New Orleans home.
New York-area students saved the belongings of one family whose house was scheduled to be gutted.
"The physical gift you gave us was uplifting, but the value of seeing all of you giving up your time and energy to help people you don't even know and may never meet brought a renewed hope for the future," the resident, Damian Peters, wrote to the students. "It is gratifying to see an organization such as Hillel which reinforces camaraderie, community and traditional values."
Gratitude came easily to local residents disappointed by the slow response from insurance companies and governmental authorities.
"Passions were definitely running high for people who remained in New Orleans. There is a large part of their lives which they need to rebuild from scratch," said Ira Goldstein, the president of Queen's University Hillel in Kingston, Ontario. "It has apparently has resulted in widespread frustration, which has made rebuilding efforts that much more challenging."
Hillel helped residents of Biloxi, Miss., overcome months of inaction by local authorities as student volunteers put new roofs on dozens of houses. Hillel partnered with Presbyterian churches in Mississippi which provided lodging, logistical assistance and construction training. The churches worked with Hillel, in part, to demonstrate their disagreement with national Presbyterian officials who support divestment from companies that do business with Israel. Hillel's efforts were supported the United Jewish Communities, B'nai B'rith International, the Sol Goldman Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the MB & Edna Zale Foundation.
The alternative breaks not only allowed the students to learn more about post-Katrina life in Louisiana and Mississippi – it also gave them the chance to learn more about themselves and people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds. The University of Southern California group included both students from Hillel and the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who traveled to Baton Rouge together to build homes and to discuss their identity.
"Not only did this program help us learn about African Americans, it helped us learn about the nature of our own Jewish identity," USC Hillel Campus Rabbi Jonathan Klein said.
Though the students are now back on campus, many say it won't be long before the return to the Gulf Coast since the work is far from over. Danielle Leeds, a senior at Binghamton University, hopes to recruit members of her Boston-area synagogue to make the trip with her this summer and continue the valuable projects that are underway.
"I don't think anything is more important than people coming here and seeing it and helping," Leeds said.
"We boarded the plane in Pittsburgh as 16 college students headed down south. We came back united with our country, united by a cause," said Mishkin of Pittsburgh. "Now we students share the mitzvah, the responsibility, of spreading the word. We look forward to returning to New Orleans someday soon to share in the celebration of a city and its people restored, renewed and transformed."