The New Mecca Of Tikkun Olam
Staff Writer
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Shoshana Gibbor, a junior last year at Hofstra University on Long Island, walked past the Hillel flyers posted in her dormitory for several weeks in late 2006. “Help Rebuild the Gulf Coast,” the flyers stated. They were promoting an alternative Spring Break volunteer program in New Orleans and nearby communities along the Gulf of Mexico that had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Gibbor paid no attention to the notices. “I planned to go home, work, make money” back in New Jersey over the school vacation, she says. Then “a voice inside my head” spoke to her. Right before the registration deadline, on the last night, she decided to sign up. Gibbor says she’s often a last-minute person. She called her mother in Toms River to help fill in the online application. In the spring of 2007, she flew down to Louisiana for a week of gutting and stripping flooded-out homes, the unglamorous but vital work that volunteers were doing before New Orleans could be rebuilt. That week along the Mississippi changed Gibbor’s life. She learned about Katrina, about the property ruined and the lives lost. Earlier, she hadn’t watched many of the news reports about the Hurricane’s impact. “I distanced myself from it. I didn’t have a lot of images. I didn’t have a personal contact with it.” Her work in New Orleans put a human face on the tragedy. And, Gibbor says, “I learned so much about myself.” She learned that she could handle days of back-breaking work, that she reveled in the new responsibility, that she could be touched by Katrina survivors she met, that she found a reservoir of strength in her Jewish background, and that, as a psychology major, a life in the volunteer/non-profit world would be more fulfilling. “My first hands-on experience was life altering,” says Gibbor, 21. “I felt a light had been sparked inside of me. It really touched me deeply.” The light didn’t go out when Gibbor returned to Hofstra, in Hempstead, L.I. “I was sad to leave,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave. I felt that my work was not finished.” Back on campus, she became “more spiritual,” more active in Hillel, urging fellow students to follow her volunteer path to New Orleans. “It’s something you can’t understand unless you’ve been there. Because I didn’t understand until I was there.” Gibbor isn’t alone. In the nearly three years since the Category 5 hurricane put 80 percent of New Orleans under water, thousands and thousands of members of the American Jewish community — which raised millions of dollars for Katrina recovery in the weeks after the storm — have become part of a nationwide rebuilding campaign. Some have gone there for a week as so-called “voluntourists,” as painters and teachers and social workers, others for longer periods, some pulling up stakes and moving to the Big Easy. Many use their vacation time to volunteer in New Orleans, often living in Spartan off-site camps, risking injury and polluted air and paying hundreds of dollars for airplane tickets and lodging. During the day they sweat and at night they reflect and cry and discuss Jewish ethics. Many of the volunteers are young, high school- and college-aged. “Young Jews don’t want to just give money,” says Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice. Many return with stronger Jewish identities and renewed commitment to social activism in their own communities.   Jewish newspapers around the country are full of reports on local residents spending time as volunteers in New Orleans and local organizations sponsoring work programs there. Talk to members of your synagogue or religious schools and you hear about teens raising money for New Orleans or affiliate groups arranging the next volunteer trip or adults taking over a homeless shelter. These groups include national Hillel and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Adult Mitzvah Corps, the Ramaz School, the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue B’nai Mitzvah class and the Westchester-based J-Teen organization. “The more people that go there and see with their own eyes, the more it keeps the story alive,” says Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. “Until New Orleans is rebuilt, we need to remind people that the need is still there.” Today, New Orleans is a Jewish issue. “Now it’s a trend,” says DeeDee Benel, educational director of student programs at Ramaz, an Upper East Side institution with a long history of social activism. Benel brought a group of more than a dozen teens to New Orleans a few months after the hurricane struck for a week of packing food packages and distributing holiday gifts to kids. “I wanted them to see what happened,” she says. This summer Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, which has permanent programs in Chicago and Washington, is expanding to New Orleans. “Nationally, young people want to come to New Orleans,” says Joshua Lichtman, a onetime lawyer who will direct Avodah’s New Orleans program. “It’s an opportunity to do work that is a meaningful, hands-on experience. “Where will you make a difference?” he asks, repeating a mantra on the lips of many New Orleans volunteers. The Jewish Funds for Justice, which has sent a few hundred people to the Gulf Coast for periods of service and learning, is providing several millions dollars in grants and loans for rebuilding to small businesses and has brought groups to New Orleans for a first-hand look at the damage and recovery. For many, New Orleans has become the new Mecca of Tikkun Olam, a place to put into practice the Jewish precept of repairing the world. They find that New Orleans fills the volunteering-away-from-home niche that Israel (too far away, too expensive, too dangerous) and the former Soviet Union (the “Let My People Go” times have passed) once filled. For many, like Gibbor, New Orleans changes their lives. And, for the people of New Orleans, Jews and non-Jews, the post-Katrina flood — of volunteers and new residents — is a reminder that they are not forgotten. New Orleans is planting the seeds for a “new domestic Peace Corps,” says Katherine Schneiderman, a 24-year-old Upper West Side native who moved to New Orleans 11⁄2 years ago to serve as director of communications for a newly elected member of the City Council and now is his deputy chief of staff. It is “a laboratory for rebuilding an American city.” “A lot of young Jews have already done community service” elsewhere, Schneiderman says. “New Orleans is a natural extension of that. It is a very intoxicating city.” “This is the new Jewish way to express yourself,” says Stuart Botwinick, senior program director at the Sid Jacobson Y in East Hills, L.I., which has coordinated teen community service trips to New Orleans. “New Orleans has become a beacon for community service trips because it is easily accessible by plane; it has a well-functioning Jewish community with several synagogues, a JCC, federation and Hillel at Tulane University. “UJA-Federation has recently offered grants to several Jewish communal institutions,” including the Jacobson Y, he says, “to increase and strengthen these types of programs with the goal of impacting Jewish identity and community connections.” New Orleans offers members of the Jewish community a chance to literally get their hands around the challenges that many cities face, like poverty and deteriorating housing. “New Orleans is one city. It’s very focused. It’s a microcosm of problems,” says Rabbi  Feldman of the Union of Reform Judaism. “All of this is in one place down there.” At the Jacobson Y, the New Orleans stint is promoted as a “Tikkun Olam Vacation.” “This is where you do your Tikkun Olam thing,” says Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. He says the flow of new faces hasn’t stopped. “We see them coming down on a regular basis. There isn’t a week when there isn’t a [volunteer] group. We love it.” Weil says about 10 percent of the New Orleans Jewish community – which was about 10,000 before Katrina, lost some 40 percent afterwards, and has slowly started to increase its numbers – is newcomers. Weil himself is part of this trend. An Israeli, he gave up a comfortable think-tank job to make a new life in New Orleans and to help the city’s Jewish community restore itself. He estimates that “between 5,000 and 10,000”  — “maybe even more” — Jewish volunteers have come to New Orleans since Katrina, some as individuals, some as part of groups sponsored by synagogues and Jewish federations and youth groups and other Jewish organizations. He says a disproportionate number of  New Orleans-based volunteers in such organizations as Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America — maybe as high as 30 to 40 percent of them — are Jewish. “It’s a snowball effect,” says Joel Brown, owner of the Kosher Cajun restaurant in suburban Metairie. “They come for a second or third time to volunteer. One person might move here and tell friends of theirs. “I see a lot of new customers,” Brown says. By now, bus drivers know to bring Jewish groups to his restaurant. Offsite, he caters meals to Jewish groups working in the heavily destroyed Ninth Ward area. “We go almost every week.” “In some ways,” the process of who goes to New Orleans and who returns changed, is “self-selective,” says Rabbi Meir Mitelman, executive director of Hofstra Hillel. His chapter has brought three student groups to New Orleans on alternative breaks. “There is a certain type of student who has a big heart and wants to make a difference,” he says. “It is hard work — hard, rigorous work.” At house sites, volunteers are outfitted in HAZMAT uniforms and masks over their mouths. “It’s not a vacation. “They come back with a real passion,” Rabbi Mitelman says. “Now they understand that what they’re doing” – in an apparently non-Jewish setting – “has a Jewish value. They come back inspired to continue making a difference.” Gibbor kept her personal pledge to go back to New Orleans. A year after her first volunteer week, she took part in another Alternative Spring Break. “I realized I had to go. I knew there was more work to be done,” she says. Gibbor was looking for “closure” from her exposure to deserted houses. She wanted to see homes rebuilt, lives restored. “I wanted to see a difference.” This time, she didn’t wait until the last minute to apply. This time, a few months ago, there was no gutting of houses. Instead, she was cleaning and painting houses. “I was seeing what I wanted to see.” It’s not enough, she says. “Not enough rebuilding.” New Orleans has only gone a short way on the road to recovery. Gibbor says her time in New Orleans isn’t over. After she graduates next May, she plans to return there again, this time for a year. Maybe to study, maybe to volunteer. She’ll start the application way in advance, she says. “I’m going to plan it out. “I want to see communities full. I want to see vibrant life. I want to see the Jewish community getting stronger,” Gibbor says.  “It’s going to happen. A week will not be enough.”

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12/22/2009 - 09:36

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