By Devora Schwartz and Noah Slepkov
The Jewish tradition teaches: "It is not for you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:16). It was this belief that sparked National Jewish Campus Life, the voice of students across Canada, in partnership with Toronto, Montreal and Kingston Hillels, to send a delegation of 28 students and staff from to New Orleans for spring break. Hosted by the Hillel Foundation of New Orleans, the group spent the week building homes with Habitat for Humanity while attempting to comprehend the extensive damage which Hurricane Katrina caused not only for the city of New Orleans, but the lives of so many individuals.
"When we were driving from the airport to New Orleans Hillel we were shocked by the extent of the damage. We saw stores with their roofs torn off, restaurants with their signs toppled over and blue tarps in place of roofs on many houses," said Alexandra Meliach-Gould, a second-year student at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.
Along with their rebuilding efforts, the delegation toured several devastated neighborhoods that were once densely populated with people and are now completely barren. Students gathered in front of the Beth Israel Synagogue, which became famous after their Torahs were rescued by members of ZAKA, the Israel-based disaster-relief organization. Listening to Adam Bronstone, the community relations, planning and allocations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, explain the impact of the hurricane on the Jewish community, the students stared at the water stains on the walls of the synagogue several feet above their heads, which served as a stark indication of the magnitude of subsequent floods which ravaged the city.
Bronstone passionately urged the students to view the damaged caused not as natural disaster, but man-made. He contended that the government failed to adequately and effectively maintain the levees, which caused them to burst and deluge the city.
"Passions were definitely running high for people who remained in New Orleans. There is a large part of their lives with they need to rebuild from scratch," said Ira Goldstein, the president of Queen's University Hillel. "It has apparently has resulted in widespread frustration, which has made rebuilding efforts that much more challenging."
Students had the opportunity to work on two sites during the week, one for a family displaced by the hurricane and the second for the Habitat volunteers coordinating relief efforts in the area. In the evenings they had time to meet New Orleans Hillel students as well as participate in Mardi Gras celebrations, a true testament to the city's ability to recover and rebuild.
"Overall, traveling to New Orleans with Hillel was an amazing experience. Tt has inspired us to continue the work of tzedek and tzedakah within our own communities and abroad," Meliach-Gould said.
This was the second group of Canadian students to respond to the disaster. Hillel of Greater Toronto sent 19 volunteers to Gulfport, Miss., during the winter break.
Devora Schwartz is the Tzedek Hillel/social action director at Hillel of Greater Toronto. Noah Slepkov is the director of Jewish student life at the University of Toronto.