Ten University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students recently returned from an alternative break in Gulfport, Miss., where they helped to rebuild an area that was heavily devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Along with 400 other Hillel students from universities around the country, students were part of a three-week relief effort organized by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel. Students spent the week working on homes in need of new roofs, including one home that was built and completed from foundation in one week.
Thanks to these students, seventeen families are now able to begin moving back into their homes and rebuilding their lives. Hillel worked with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to begin fulfilling the needs of this community in need. PDA provided Hillel with a "tent city" to live for a week, where students and staff created a community based on providing social justice to those in need. Following an eight-hour work day, students participated in Jewish learning that dealt with tzedek and other relevant texts. Students also heard from FEMA representatives and local community volunteers.
Students traveled to New Orleans for a half-day to see the different devastation that exists in this city. They were taken on a tour of Congregation Beth Israel, New Orleans' only Orthodox synagogue, which was completely destroyed from flooding. The story of the famous Torah scrolls being rescued from this synagogue was told, leaving many students in tears. Following a brief glimpse of the virtually untouched French Quarter, students dined at the Hillel Foundation of New Orleans and had the opportunity to speak with students about their experiences in the fall semester, when they had been displaced in the aftermath of the hurricane.
All 10 students proved to be natural leaders, according to Melissa Cohen, the UIUC Hillel professional who accompanied htem, and all were impacted by the devastation and the work that still needs to be done. Experts say that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast could take eight to 10 years. In Gulfport alone, 30,000 roofs still need to be rebuilt. UIUC Hillel is committed to going in the winter and spring for the next three years.
"After being so numb for so long from all the media, seeing the devastation firsthand reopened my eyes to the tremendous amount of need and work still needed to be done in the Gulf Coast area" said UIUC senior Jonathan Witten.
"This is one of the three experiences in my life that I will remember when I am 50 because of the impact we made," added sophomore Jenny Kohn.
Kohn and the rest of the group hope to make a difference back on the UIUC campus and get others involved in the effort by starting an advocacy group that will raise money for students to be able to go down to help in the future, educate one another and encourage their politicians to vote for a better levee system in New Orleans. Students agree that the rebuilding is an ongoing process, and that middle school students should be a target group, ensuring that they are committed to the final stages of the effort when they are in college.
"The work we did was such a small piece of the big picture, but seeing how much it helped people was amazing," junior Rachel McGinnis said.
"The thing that impacted me the most was getting to put a face to the destruction and getting to meet the people that were affected and hear their stories," agreed sophomore Rachel Delrahim.
"These students are pioneers in this effort to rebuild and should be commended for their dedication and hard work. They are an inspiration," Cohen said.