Citing their Jewish commitment to social action, a group of teens from central and north Jersey spent their winter break helping to repair parts of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina five years ago.
The students were among a group of about 60 teens from across the country who went to the Louisiana city Dec. 23-30 on the alternative winter break trip sponsored by Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement of Hadassah.
Andrew Fretwell, Young Judaea manager of youth leadership and education, said this was the fourth year for the winter trip and the second time it has visited New Orleans.
“We decided to go back based on the continued need to help the city as well as the compounding crisis caused by the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast region, “ he said. “This specifically came out of our teen leadership committee. They knew there was going to be a continuing need for help and made the decision to go back. It was the right thing to do.”
The teens focused their efforts in the state’s St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and among those that suffered the most damage. They helped plant and care for a community garden, installed energy-efficient bulbs through Green Light New Orleans, and assisted All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center in renovating the homes of low- and fixed-income residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.
They also helped renovate, refurbish, and build homes in St. Bernard Parish so their owners could move back in and brought “holiday joy” to more than 100 elderly residents of St. Margaret’s Quality Health nursing home.
Fretwell said the projects helped the teens “develop a sense of building community, get the chance to further explore their Jewish identity, and ultimately go home with a deeper commitment to service.”
Stephanie Blitzer of East Windsor is a social action programmer for Young Judaea, helping to plan volunteer activities.
“It’s been five years now, and New Orleans is still damaged and there are many parts that have not been fixed yet,” said the 16-year-old Hightstown High School sophomore. “It was amazing to see how much we helped people. Just to see the expressions on the faces of the people. They were so happy to see us and kept telling us what a great job we were doing. Just to see how we were affecting these people made me so happy.”
Stephanie, the daughter of Rob and Gerri Blitzer and a member of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, talked about her time volunteering at St. Margaret’s, clearing the garden, and helping at the community center.
She said she and her fellow Young Judaeans “hung out with the nursing home residents, sang songs, and made Christmas cards. We cleaned up that garden so they could grow and sell vegetables. We helped at the community center putting in books and art supplies. We really feel we helped these people.”
Abby and Solomon Park, siblings from Lawrenceville, were both part of the Young Judaea contingent.
“We got to hear people tell us their stories, and the community service was like a bonus,” said Abby, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lawrence High School, where her brother is a senior. “We saw firsthand what the houses looked like; some of them were still in pretty bad shape from Hurricane Katrina.”
The children of Seth and Rachel Park, the family belongs to Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
Abby recalled putting up drywall in a house for the St. Bernard Project, working in the community garden, fixing up the community center, and helping install the “green” light bulbs.
“We were really surprised the area was still in such bad condition five years after Katrina,” she said. “Even though we were there only for a week, we got to help out so many organizations. I was happy to help because although it just seemed like a little bit to us, it was like the world to them.”