As many students around the country were using their winter breaks to take a breather from the books, seven members of the CSI chapter of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, joined approximately 92 other Hillel members from colleges and universities around the U.S. to go down to New Orleans and help to rebuild the damage left behind by Hurricane Katrina.
The CSI students participated in an eight-day Alternative Break (January 4 through 11), and worked eight-hour shifts side-by-side with the owner of a house that had been damaged in the hurricane that had devastated much of the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The students’ work was coordinated by Rebuild New Orleans, an organization that reports that one out of every 25 New Orleans residents has been made homeless by Katrina.
Loren Lemberg, one of the CSI participants, says that she went to New Orleans “to actually see what Hurricane Katrina had left behind and try to make a difference in fixing up someone’s home.” She adds, “I was impressed that even though there were many students at this site that three of the homeowners openheartedly decided to join us in helping rebuild their home. We scraped together, we primed together, and we even formed a bond together.”
Amy Posner, Executive Director of Hillel at CSI, notes that the project was funded through a grant from Hillel International. Initially, the CSI students were only responsible for covering a registration fee and their airfare to and from New Orleans, but the Richmond County Bank Foundation generously stepped in with a $3,500 grant to pay for the plane tickets.
Recalling the trip, Posner says that “we stayed at a camp outside of New Orleans in St. Bernard’s Parish. It’s owned and operated by Habitat for Humanity, specifically for volunteers who are coming to help with Hurricane Katrina relief. The work that we did was through an organization called Rebuild New Orleans. The difference is that Habitat for Humanity only builds brand new homes. Rebuild New Orleans renovates and repairs existing homes. So, we were assigned a house, and they assigned us a crew captain, and we scraped and primed, and painted this big old house that had been ruined. We went to work every day, except on Saturday, which is our Sabbath. In the evening we had guest speakers who came and spoke to us about what happened with many different points of view and then on Saturday night, we had a party where we had a New Orleans jazz band come in and also we had one free evening in the French Quarter. The group also toured a synagogue that had been severely damaged by the storm.”
Posner also mentioned that CSI Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work, John Arena, a New Orleans native who experienced Katrina first-hand, briefed the group on what to expect before they left.
This trip to help those in need in New Orleans isn’t the first good deed that CSI Hillel has done. Posner notes that “we do a lot of different things locally. For instance in the winter, we did a hat and glove drive, we sponsored a multifaith Thanksgiving dinner on campus, and we helped the domestic violence coalition in collecting items for the women’s shelter. [Also,] on Sunday, February 8, we’re going into Manhattan to feed the homeless breakfast with the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island teen group. Community service is a big part of Hillel.”
In the case of the New Orleans effort, Lemberg sums up that spirit. “A quote [from Rabbi Hillel] that we like to follow by is ‘If Not Now…When?’ People believe that there is a future for New Orleans. We as college students are the next generation of successful individuals, therefore it is our obligation to make the world a better place. If not now…when? If our group of 100 can change a few families’ lives in a week, then I can just imagine the change we all can make in the world starting now.”