This summer 17 Yeshiva University students participated in the Center for the Jewish Future’s New Orleans Service Mission. As part of the mission students had the opportunity to engage members of the community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina just five years ago learn about their current challenges and help rebuild.
New Orleans is a city of contradictions. Destruction, rebuilding. Desertion, returning. Neglect, attention. Government failure, individual action. Race divide, unity. A grounded city, a place some would believe is better left abandoned. Many of these concepts are hard to reconcile on a brief trip such as the CJF mission we recently completed. Still, there is something gripping about New Orleans, which we were able to discover in merely six days.
From the onset of the trip, many of us were unsure of what we would encounter. What we did experience, though, changed our lives forever. Putting faces to the homes, to the numbers, to the flood’s structural and awful devastation, took our understanding of present-day New Orleans to a new level. The personal accounts we heard and the sense of unity and hope we felt from New Orleans residents allowed us to feel motivated to sod a yard in 100-degree heat, paint a house as professionally as our unskilled selves were able, knock down a brick shed and even attempt to climb ladders in order to dry wall a home.
We met with the founders of Resurrection after Exoneration, an organization that helps those wrongfully accused and those transitioning out of jail and into society by making sure they have a place to live and teaching them job skills. We also met with Tracey Williams, a powerhouse in the community who is facilitating the rebuilding of the Treme neighborhood. Her colorful and hopeful houses have popped up across the neighborhood.
We heard from members of the Jewish community such as Neil Schneider, a representative of the Jewish Federation, to try to understand the implications that Katrina had on the smaller community. The stable Jewish infrastructure allowed the Jewish community to bounce back more quickly than the city at large. Still, the community basically halved; the number of Jews went from 11,000 to 6,000, and the number is only now slowly rising. The Jewish community that was forced to bury seven sacred Torah Scrolls from their completely ruined synagogue is only now able to build a new space of their own.
But there is a unique sense of unity in the New Orleans Jewish community; the Orthodox synagogue is currently housed in the Reform Temple because the synagogue was destroyed in the disaster. The time we spent with the members of the shul showed us that they all work very hard to stay true to their values and maintain their community.
From our week in Louisiana, we learned the true danger of “bystander effect” — meaning that most people assume there is always someone else to pick up the pieces or to solve the problem. Most residents of the city believe that Katrina was a man-made disaster. The failure of the levees caused the flooding, not the hurricane itself. Our trip taught us the power of man, the danger of neglect, the importance of hope and our ability to be part of a rebuilding and to make a difference.
Rachel Daniels of Lincolnwood, Illinois is a junior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.