Most college students are forgiven if they sleep in on January 1, nursing a headache from the past night’s excesses, but Erik Steel awoke early to catch a flight to New Orleans. Steel, a student at the State University of New York in New Paltz, buckled himself into his seat, quieted jitters about his first time ever on a plane, and headed off to join 49 other college students massing at Chabad of New Orleans.
They were the second of two groups who spent winter break at Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana scooping muck, carting out moldy furniture, gutting waterlogged homes as part of Chabad on Campus’s ongoing Hurricane Katrina relief effort. One hundred students from Columbia, USC, University of Washington-Seattle, University of California-Santa Cruz, Harvard, Hofstra, SUNY Binghamton, Queens College, Brown University and 25 other schools participated in the two trips over winter break from December 18-24 and January 1-7.
On the road, passing a minivan, which looked perfectly roadworthy except that it was wedged into the trunk of the tree, the students likened fabled New Orleans to a war zone, a science fiction movie set. They saw grown men, hulking and massive, able to wrench a roll of waterlogged carpet into the street, weep at the state of their synagogue. And yet, there was a sense of optimism, of each wheelbarrow of debris being a “tick among thousands who all together will slowly move this mountain from the homes in which it invaded,” in the words of SUNY New Paltz’s Ben Levy. Chabad on Campus’s relief mission was at times a kaddish for a lost city and simultaneously hope filled and, according to Steel, “strangely fun.”
For a century Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue had been a spiritual home for New Orleans’s Jews. After Katrina, the building stood filled with a mire of brackish water. Mold crept over all–defacing scripture, invading the Torah ark–feeding on the holy words. Not much survived. Students protected themselves from spores with masks and readied mountains of waterlogged prayer books for burial. “Seeing all of the beauty corrupted with mold–yellow, green, black–made it almost impossible to keep our composure,” wrote EmilyRose Johns, a student at University of Washington-Seattle. Among the ruins, a student found the remnants of a Torah scroll. A few scraps of parchment, wooden poles and velvet cover were the only survivors.
From hand to hand, boxes laden with Jewish books were passed until they reached the deep, pool-sized hole. Beth Israel President Jackie Gothard stood by watching the Torah scroll receive its final kiss as it was laid to rest. “I don’t know if we could have done a job as monumental as this without the young people,” said Gothard. As the dirt was hand-shoveled over the books, a subdued version of ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’ the Nation of Israel Lives, was sung. “We hope to get our congregation back together again. If we can have just an ounce of energy like the students have, we could do it.”
At a New Orleans public school, students from the Chabad relief project rolled sky blue paint onto the walls. Readying the school for opening later this month was the goal. Students were pleased to find Chabad helping others outside of the Jewish community.
The relief group got a sense of how helpful Chabad is to the wider community when they spent the day building with Habitat for Humanity. “I am flying away in four days but the work I am doing this week will have an impact that far surpasses any dollar amount I could have mailed,” wrote Avi Zellman in an online blog. Students who had only picked up a hammer to hang up pictures drove nails into the frames of two-by-fours. The home Chabad’s student group worked on was the first one built by Habitat in New Orleans after Katrina.
By night during their stay, the students did more than pick splinters from hands and gulp Advil after their day of hard labor. They fried 200 doughnuts for a Chanukah party and got to know one another in icebreaker games and by hanging out. Simply being around other Jews their own age made the relief trip a social highlight. “There’s a whole lot of unity,” said Amber Lupin from Tulane University.
Before the college students arrived, Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters was already deep into its Katrina relief work. In addition, Chabad has been in New Orleans for over three decades and became a significant player in rescue and relief efforts that continue today.
Today, Chabad’s Torah Academy reopened. Students filed in to the revamped halls, and made their way into the classrooms freshly cleaned and painted by students several years their senior, but connected to Chabad all the same.