Hillel students who spent their winter break repairing roofs in Biloxi, Miss., were shocked at the devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and pleased to be able to help local residents begin the process of healing.
"After seeing it firsthand, I realized how important it is that we are down here. There is so much more work to be completed – the work we are doing is a very small part of what needs to be done," University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker said.
Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, an international public-service and social-justice initiative, brought 135 students and professionals from 16 campus Hillels to Gulfport, Miss., to help rebuild an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport arranged for the volunteers to spend two weeks repairing the rooftops of nearby Biloxi, where many homes were left with only their main structures intact. The church also served as a home base for the group, where they slept, ate and reflected on their work.
Though most of the students had little experience with construction projects, they quickly adjusted to spending long hours off the ground and proudly developed new power-tool skills.
"I've never spent any significant time on a roof before. I'm now an expert on nail guns," said Erin Strauss, a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The students also had time during the week to meet the people whose houses they were renovating. The residents' harrowing stories of survival made a strong impression on the volunteers, whose prior knowledge about the hurricane's effects came strictly from news coverage.
"Talking with the people down here puts a whole different perspective on the situation. It's nothing like watching it on the news," said Jordy Gold, a member of the Hillel of Greater Toronto delegation.
Three hundred additional students will build on their efforts this spring, when Hillel sponsors three weeks of alternative breaks in March and April.