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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Hillel Group Aids Relief in New Orleans

Published: January 19, 2007
Section: News

Members of the Brandeis Hillel traveled to New Orleans Jan. 1 to spend a week aiding relief efforts 18 months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The group, which was open to the entire Brandeis community, worked with groups from Michigan State, Baltimore, Toronto, Broward, and Palm Beach.

What hit me the most was that you could look at parts of it and not know you were in the United States, said Emily Bloom 08. Parts of it just looked like a third world country, just the poverty and destruction Its really bad.

Motivations for students to attend varied;

while some acted upon a simple desire to help, others felt personal ties to the destruction of New Orleans. I have family ties to the area, said Preston Neal 07. I had been in New Orleans a few weeks before the hurricane for a wedding. I had been there a few times, I really liked it a lot, and I felt I had some responsibility.

Neal added that he felt guilty for being here while people needed help I felt helpless. So when this opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.

The 22 students who went on the Alternative Winter Break, which was led by New Orleans native Rabbi Alan Lehmann and Anna Berezina, helped to put up vinyl siding and to build frames for new houses. Their work culminated in working on a church in New Orleanss Lower 9th Ward, one of the most damaged areas in the region.

I think for a lot of students, this brought them out of their bubble, said Lehmann. Students knew intellectually that not everyone lived as economically comfortable people in the American Northeast would. To actually go to places in the United States where there was great loss and to do something about it, I think changed people's perspectives.

One of the more difficult jobs, according to Shari Seinuk 07, was gutting flooded homes, which entailed destroying flood-contaminated walls as well as mold-infested property. When you get in each house, you had to take out all of the personal belongings of each person, said Seinuk, who had assisted in relief efforts last year in Biloxi, MS. That was kind of hard for me, because you have to decide what of these people's things gets to stay or go. You decide if its worth keeping or not.

Many of the students who visited said they were struck by the amount of physical and psychological damage still evident: It was a little bit like a ghost town in certain areas, recalled Seinuk. You're in a suburban neighborhood and you'd expect to see people around here. Basically, you're in a neighborhood that should be busy, but there's only about one person on each block that has moved back in.

The touristy sections like the French Quarter are fine There are still people going down there, said Bloom. If you didn't leave the French Quarter, you couldn't even tell that half the city was in ruins.

She added that when you go into the more residential neighborhoods, especially the poor ones, there are foundations that had houses, but they were just washed away. There were houses with roofs caved in It looks so abandoned, and about half the population hasn't come back. It just looks really empty.

Lehmann, a New Orleans native, recalled his striking perspective on the disaster. It was somewhat of a mind-bending experience of being at a place that still very much feels like home and seeing these familiar surroundings, being in places that have been devastated, such as the neighborhoods where my own family lived, and being in other neighborhoods that were largely untouched, such as the neighborhood where I grew up, or the French quarter, he said, remembering the dissonancethe cognitive and emotional dissonanceof seeing the home that I remember both being there and being gone.

Neal, on the other hand, said his biggest challenge came from the apathy of others. I was kind of strugglingthere was one point where these guys drove by with nice rims in the car, blasting music they were living this ostentatious lifestyle, while we were helping clear out all this destruction, he said. It was a bit of a value difference It just made me think, Were coming to help, and people dont have essentials, and these people were just driving around. It was a big wake-up call.

Still, the students mentioned that the appreciation of those still in New Orleans made their trip a meaningful one. Seinuk said that it was a little bit inspiring to see people say this is my home, and I'm going to rebuild it. She added that we did a lot and as one person you don't always think you can make a difference, but as a group, we contributed to making a huge difference.

Meanwhile, Neal remembered just seeing the look on this womans face when we were sledge-hammering concrete she said what you guys are doing, you cant imagine how important you are. My uncle told me, It means a lot to this city, to the people what youre doing. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it really is making a difference.

Lehmann said that he hoped to continue these ventures to help the stricken New Orleans. I was inspired by the [students] values, by their dedication, by their commitment to repair the world, he said. He added that you dont have to go to New Orleans to find deprivation and poverty We must not forget that there is a great need for seeking restorative justice, which would be the way I would translate tzadakah, which is usually translated as charity, but means so much more than that.