Breaking from the stereotypical spring vacation in Cabo, 15 Cornell students headed south this past break to partake in Hillel’s Sol Goldman Charitable Trust Alternative Break in New Orleans. Working with Hillel International, Cornell was one of 12 schools comprising a volunteer group of 137 students and 13 staff, according to Nomi Fridman, trip leader.
With students at more than 500 colleges and universities, Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. In New Orleans, Hillel International chose to work with Rebuilding Together New Orleans, a federally-funded program staffed mainly by Americorps volunteers.
The Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans started Rebuilding Together New Orleans in 1988 to address the needs of existing homeowners, particularly the elderly and disabled, who could no longer manage home repair.
After Hurricane Katrina, RTNO modified its mission to focus on those displaced by the storm. Instead of smaller upkeep projects, it began doing full renovations of houses damaged by the hurricane. Retaining some of its original philosophy, RTNO serves low-income homeowners who are elderly, disabled or single heads of households with children, according to its website.
Almost five years after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, organizations like RTNO are as important as ever.
“I wasn’t even aware people were still doing service,” John Sherman ’11, a participant on the trip, admitted. “Once in New Orleans, I realized there is still so much work that needs to be done.”
While the group resided together in St. Bernard Parish, each college took a bus to different worksites throughout the city. Only Cornell’s group actually rebuilt houses; the other 11 groups participated in beautification projects such as planting trees or cleaning up parks, according to Fridman. Due to its size, Cornell’s group split up between two houses.
Since the houses were in the final stages of reconstruction, students painted, tiled and grouted bathrooms, among finer, finishing procedures. For example, Sherman installed radiant barriers in an attic to keep the house from becoming too hot in New Orleans’s famous heat.
Additionally, both houses belonged to residents who were victims of contractor fraud. Contractor fraud is a major issue in New Orleans, one that Sherman described as “rampant.”
“The fact that people can rip off those who have returned to New Orleans, after all they’ve been through with the storm, is unspeakable, evil, heartless,” he said.
After a long day of work, Cornell students regrouped with the rest of Hillel International’s volunteers for evening discussions. Guest speakers — such as Dan Shea, managing editor of New Orleans’s Times Picayune — participated in some of these sessions.
“It was nice to go as an adult. It felt good to wake up early, work all day, and then go out in the French Quarter at night,” Edie Feinstein ’12 said of the schedule.
Like Sherman, Feinstein commented on the evening reflections, which brought the trip together. In addition to learning about New Orleans, trip leaders connected their daily activities to Judaism.
“We would link passages from the Torah to the service work we were doing — like helping out the poor even if they are not Jewish,” Feinstein said.
Although the trip was not exclusively for Jews — two participants from Cornell did not identify as Jewish — volunteers were not allowed to leave the motel on Saturday because of Shabbat, a day rest in Judaism.
Regardless of religious identification, the group grew very close throughout their seven days together. Feinstein started the week knowing six participants, but “at the end, we were all a cute, little family.”
Both Sherman and Feinstein stressed that they would definitely return to New Orleans.
“The media does not cover New Orleans anymore. It’s been five years. Other tragedies hit, such as the earthquaker in Chile, which dwarf the interest in New Orleans,” Sherman said.
Furthermore, he worries that if another hurricane hits, all reconstruction will be in vain. James Perry, a housing expert who spoke to the group in one of their nightly meetings, explained that the levee system was only restored to pre-Katrina levels. Therefore, if another hurricane of the same strength hit, safety is not guaranteed.
In the meantime, volunteers hope to spread as much awareness about the state of New Orleans as possible.
“[The trip] was really rewarding. It was not a relaxing vacation at all, but we had fun.” Feinstein said.