From Thursday, January 17 to Monday, January 21, seventeen students from Temple Emanu-El’s Gesher L’Kesher (“a bridge to connection”) program, a peer leadership program for 11th and 12th graders, worked in the Lower Ninth Ward restoring New Orleans from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina which still exists seven years after the catastrophic flooding. The Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch L. Landrieu, acknowledged their volunteer work, which included helping to build a community garden and preparing a sports field for the children who live in the Lower 9th Ward. An award, signed by Mayor Landrieu, ”In recognition of volunteering to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Community, January 20, 2013, Center for Sustained Education and Development,” was given to the group by Waranetta Banks, who is the head of the CSED center.
The group was led by Temple Emanu-El’s Cantor Martha Novick, who also led the first trip to New Orleans in 2011; and Rabbi Sarah Smiley, Director of the Gesher L’Kesher program. Michael Kenny, the Temple’s Building Supervisor; and Carol Yanow, Temple member, also helped to guide the group.
Cantor Novick, who organized the trip, commented, “People ask why we still go to New Orleans seven years after Katrina. The answer is quite simple; New Orleans is a broken city. In one small area we have many opportunities to help people in need, work hard all day and then reward ourselves in the evening with a great meal and sharing time.”
The participants included seniors: Marc Brody, Lee Goldberger, Jake Greenberg, Jessica Kenny, Jen Mandelblatt, Samantha Meltzer, and David Solomon; and juniors: Gaby Bleisch, Eric Cantor, Max Glazer, Jenna Helfand, Jake Katz, Mandy Katz, Rebecca Kraus, Amanda Schwarz, Dara Tucker and Matt Wornow.
The group spent Thursday repairing the City Park and serving dinner at the New Orleans Mission. On Friday they started the day by packing and sorting food to provide children’s weekend food at Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves all of southern Louisiana. More than 2 ½ tons of food were packed for distribution in three hours. Friday afternoon, and during the day on Saturday, their time was spent working at the Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Engagement & Development program.
Friday evening was the highlight for most of the Gesher L’Keshers, when they shared a home cooked dinner and spent time listening to stories and experiences with members of St. John’s Church and Social Ministry, especially the children, and the church’s Pastor Bruce Davenport who said, "When you come to us once, it makes you feel good, but, when you come back to us year after year, we know you care about us."
According to Rabbi Smiley, “Since this meal took place on a Friday evening, we were also able to share in Kiddush and Motzi with the members of the church. It was great getting to teach each other about our religious traditions. Our teens enjoyed this experience so much that they did not want the evening to end.”
Jennifer Mandelblatt, a senior and first time participant, decided to go to New Orleans because she had heard that the trip was “amazing.” Already accepted to Cornell, she wants to major in industrial and labor relations, she said, “I want to help low income workers and this was an experience dealing with the reality of what has happened and the aftermath and its affect on a segment of our greater community.”
On Saturday evening the group attended a presentation by Deanna Vandiver, Executive Director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. On Sunday they attended a church service at Greater Little Zion Church before taking a French Quarter Walking Tour.
Rabbi Smiley said that, “I know the teens who participated on this trip will be talking about it for years to come and have truly developed an understanding for the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charity/righteousness), and kehillah kedosha (sacred community).”
As Dara Tucker said, “the highlight was bonding with the children and understanding their needs”, while Maddy Katz stated that she came home “learning to give back to other people.”