Students lend a hand in the Gulf.
This winter a delegation of almost 250, from nearly a dozen schools, took part in Hillel’s Alternative Winter Break to the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana and Mississippi destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
For some, like Brandeis University senior, Shari Seniuk, it was a return visit to the hurricane-ravaged area.
“Last year I came and I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Seniuk, who also volunteered last spring break. “It’s totally different this time, but I’m amazed by people’s drive to rebuild.”
With funding from the United Jewish Communities and UJA-Federation of New York and partnering with the National Relief Network, the students rolled up their sleeves and broke a sweat. They took down drywall, sheetrock and siding on the damaged houses. But perhaps the most difficult and personal task for the volunteers was removing destroyed and moldy personal affects left behind by the fleeing residents.
“I had no idea how difficult gutting the houses would be. We took out [from the houses] trophies, letters to loved ones, clothes, TVs,” said Seniuk. “It could have been my house, my stuff.”
Every evening during the one-week trip, the students gathered for discussions with a Hillel professional about social responsibility and tzedek, social justice. They pondered questions like “How do you determine need?” and “Is bearing witness tzedek?”
“It’s a Jewish response to need for us to be here,” says Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel. “We’re challenging the students to do something meaningful and needed.”
Matt Goldberg, a sophomore at Michigan State University, responded to that challenge after receiving an informational e-mail from his Hillel director.
“I wanted to check it out for myself and lend a hand,” he explains. “I was surprised to find out that it’s still a mess down here.”
“It’s sad,” agrees Lackie. “The work is nowhere near being done and it’s all being done by volunteers.”
“This has made me take stock of my own role in giving charity,” says Goldberg. “It feels good to make a difference and the people down here are still part of our community.”