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W&L Hillel in New Orleans

Members of Washington and Lee’s Hillel spent the Washington Holiday on an alternative spring break in New Orleans. Eight students and Hillel director Joan Robins participated in a week of social justice activities with Jewish Funds for Justice. Here is Joan’s description of the experience, including the observations of several of the student participants:

“Our trip was amazing. The program included re-building a house that was destroyed by Katrina, touring parts of the city affected by the storm, dialoguing with activists, exploring the intersection of Judaism and social justice, observing Shabbat with Tulane Hillel and the local Jewish community, and celebrating the vitality of the city.

“We volunteered with ‘Rebuilding Together New Orleans,’ the nation’s leading nonprofit working to preserve affordable homeownership and revitalize communities. The construction work was hard, exhausting and ultimately satisfying. Jared Hester ’13 writes: ‘There was some force driving me to keep working, something kept my spirits high despite the backbreaking, slave labor they had us doing. Maybe it was the Southern air…Or the smile of a friend, something simple, yet so vital to my day. Or a joke passed around and around until we just stopped laughing at it and made a new one. Or maybe it was the paint fumes….Who knows what it was that got me out of bed every morning, dressed me in sweat-drenched shirt and jeans, brushed my teeth, packed my lunch, and sat me on a bus full of other people just like me, with one task in mind–get through today. And we did. Now some woman with two new lungs who I’ll never know has a new pink house, has her old home back, can get on with her life.’

“We toured the Lower Ninth Ward with Tanya Harris, a community organizer who was born and raised in the neighborhood. Tanya is on the forefront of the struggle for justice, fairness, and equality in the rebuilding process and for the right of return for all residents. Writes Sammy Rosier ’14, ‘As we stood on the edge of the industrial canal and looked out on the bridge and at the small wall that is the levee protecting all of the lower ninth and N.O. as a whole, I was struck by how small it seemed….Hearing Tanya’s struggles with the local government depresses me…still having N. O. in the state it is now 6 years after the storm is ridiculous and unacceptable…More needs to be done to help this vibrant city that still has so much devastation throughout it.’

“We learned about NOLA civil rights history in a presentation by Jordan Flaherty, a journalist, and editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. A panel discussion by the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal facilitated a discussion focused on the inequalities in the region’s rebuilding and recovery process.

“Another highlight occurred spontaneously at lunch after Saturday’s Shabbat service in an orthodox synagogue. A 95-year old Holocaust and Katrina survivor, who was also Elvis’ tailor, told us about his life. Prompted by students’ questions, Mr. Scherr, with a twinkle in his eye, gave us a jumble of unique and powerful survival stories.

“Writes Graham Sheridan ’11, ‘I loved the feel of the city itself. So much music everywhere! The nice parts are still so lovely…the parades and day-to-day excitement… (It was positive) seeing the power of people to do good things. All of the people we met…are making differences and care about all of the people of their city.'”

This was Hillel’s second alternative spring break trip. A year ago a group participated in a service trip to Uruguay.