By Cindy Mindell
In March, the University of Connecticut Hillel and University of Hartford Hillel Foundation participated in “Hillel Builds 2010” in New Orleans.
Leah Lubianker, Jewish Student Life Coordinator at UConn Hillel, accompanied five students from March 7 to 14. The students were paired with a group from Washington University at St. Louis, and worked with the St. Bernard Project in St. Bernard Parish, where 100 percent of the houses were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
Eleven University of Hartford students, led by Hartford Hillel Foundation program director Nicolette Theriault, worked with Jewish Funds for Justice in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The group was paired with students from Sarah Lawrence College and worked with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association rebuilding four houses. Students worked until late afternoon, then engaged in educational sessions and tours, learning sessions using Jewish texts, and time for reflection and discussion.
“Students explored what it means to be a witness to an event, how they could bring their experience back to campus, and how they could turn their experience into something beyond the week into a lifelong commitment,” says Lubianker.
Students signed up for a variety of reasons. “I wanted to do something fun and meaningful, and I hoped to feel rewarded from giving back to the community,” says University of Hartford’s Rachel Horowitz. “I was surprised by neighborhoods that were half-rebuilt and half in shambles. I was expecting some neighborhoods to be completely devastated and some to be completely rebuilt, but not a mixture of the two in one neighborhood.”
Fellow student Adam Shery wanted to learn in a hands-on way about the impact of Hurricane Katrina. “I also wanted, simultaneously, do my part to negate this impact,” he says.
UConn student Jonathan Lukin signed up after being given a new lease on life. “During first semester, I had swine flu, pneumonia, and blood clots in my lungs,” he says. “I was in the room when the doctors told my parents that they needed to come up from Philadelphia ‘in case something happens.’ At that point, I had decided that if God had decided it was my time to go, I would accept said judgment. Needless to say, I pulled through, which left me with one logical explanation: My work here was not done. I still have a purpose, a mission to fulfill.” _Lukin had never been involved with Hillel since arriving on campus last fall, and started coming to Shabbat dinners and other events. Then, he learned of the Hillel Builds 2010 project. “This was the opportunity I was looking for,” he says: “a chance to meet other Jewish students from around the country, learn more about my Judaism, and actively participate in tikkun olam, all while experiencing the beauty of New Orleans.”
Jamie Melnick went on her first alternative break in January, working with Hillel in Los Angeles at a Boys and Girls Club and a YMCA. “I had the best time,” says Melnick, who has been involved with Community Outreach on campus. “The second I got back, I worked on figuring out how much it would cost to participate in the New Orleans trip as well.”
Lukin says that he expected to find New Orleans almost completely rebuilt, with only a few houses left to repair. “With New Orleans taking an extreme back seat to other news like Haiti and the Middle East, I figured that it had recovered and people had resumed their lives,” he says. “Nobody talks about it at all anymore.”
“While driving around the city, we saw these beautifully rebuilt homes surrounded by vacant lots which contained only the cement foundation,” says Melnick. “People are so focused on the newly occurring disasters, like those in Haiti and Chile, that they forget that people on their own home turf still need help. It is our job to spread awareness now that we are back so that people understand that there really is still so much to be done in New Orleans and we should donate our money and our time to help.”
Lukin was surprised by how satisfying he found the work. “I am not the one you will find outside doing manual labor by choice,” he says. “To be able to work on and bring a house from a shell and frame with wires as far as we did in just a week was a huge accomplishment and taught me a lot about myself in the process. I am a cyclist, tennis player, and musician and for me to lift a tool and not want to put it down because I loved what I was doing still blows my mind. It surprised me how easy the work actually was and how easy it was for two groups of students, who didn’t know each other, to build a house and get as far as we did, and see how our hard work will pay off.”
University of Hartford’s Shery was struck by the positive attitude of those affected by the disaster. “I found it surprising that every person I met who had experienced the worst of Katrina’s effects was willing to discuss his or her plight,” he says, “and did so while expressing full optimism regarding the future.”
“The students worked really hard, but had a great time and really bonded as a group,” Theriault says. “They have some wonderful ideas for follow-through events and programs to bring their knowledge and experience to the local West Hartford Community, as well as to campus.”
UConn students are working to promote awareness about how much work is left to be done in New Orleans. “I am showing my friends and family pictures of the reality of the situation so that they understand exactly what it’s like there now,” Melnick says. “I am also encouraging people to donate to the Saint Bernard Project.” The UConn group is preparing a presentation about their work and Alternative Spring Break to promote awareness and encourage others to volunteer to help New Orleans. “Many people don’t understand what happened,” Melnick says. “It wasn’t just a natural disaster. It was also a manmade disaster caused by flawed levees.” “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that trip and how my life and the lives of others are better for having gone to New Orleans with Hillel,” says Lukin, who plans to join Community Outreach at UConn. “I feel like I can truly make a difference,” he says. “I believe that if we look around, look beyond ourselves and our campus, as college students, this is the time in our lives where we have the time, the resources, and the physical abilities to make a significant difference and shape our world to be what we want and need it to be.”