Giving Back, Getting Back

This February, a group of nine BCHSJS students stepped onto an airplane and flew to New Orleans during their school break. Their purpose was to contribute to the ongoing rebuild of neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and to bring “green” or energy efficient light bulbs to homes in need of affordable lighting – and to help protect the environment. This trip was the embodiment of Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world.” And while our students touched the community in practical ways, that damaged community also touched them back.

For one student, it was his first time on an airplane and his longest time away from home. The trip took him out of his comfort zone and he came back a worldlier and more confident young man. Another student recalled that she was four years old when Hurricane Katrina hit and was amazed to visit a place she’d only read about in a history book. She returned with an appreciation of how long it can take to bring help to those in need and how many hands are needed to do so. Another student had regularly participated in charitable events, such as sending clothing to Israel or supporting our School’s holiday toy drive, but had never seen the look of appreciation on someone’s face when they personally received help from her. These were powerful experiences that had a profound impact on our students, and on our BCHSJS community when they returned and told their stories.

Many of those stories had to do with driving through the 9th Ward, the section of the city hit hardest by Katrina, and seeing the pervasive devastation. But there was progress, too, specifically with the Habitat for Humanity homes they helped ready for those in need. Whether painting trim or raking a backyard, they did work that would welcome people home to a new and better life. And while each of our students was only able to make a modest contribution, their overall contribution was significant and helped create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Through Project Green Light, our students went into people’s homes to install free energy efficient light bulbs. They were greeted with warmth, appreciation and, in one case, a “king cake,” a New Orleans tradition baked prior to Mardi Gras/Carnival. Other reflections were more sobering. When they drove through the 9th Ward they saw, still standing, uninhabitable wrecks of houses marked with the letter X. Underneath the X was the number of people who died in that house.

Being BCHSJS students means finding their place in a larger Jewish community, and our students were moved by how the New Orleans Jewish community was affected by this disaster. A physical therapy store front was built over a destroyed temple and the outline of a menorah could still be made out on one of the walls. They visited a gravesite where Torahs that had been destroyed were buried and a memorial created for them. These Jewish visuals reminded them of their role in a broader community, one that they were helping to rebuild and repair.

In reflecting on what struck him most about the trip, one student said that while they worked hard, doing it with other BCHSJS students “took the work out of the work.” The students also had a lot of fun at night as they experienced the city’s history, food and culture, strengthening friendships that began in New Jersey.