Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Final Thoughts

Quote of the Day: “People are being taxed on the money they were given from the government to rebuild their homes.”


Every Tisha B’Av at camp, a rabbi would tell one of the famous stories about the destruction of Jerusalem. A fox was seen walking through the Holy of Holies, and those who witnessed the scene wept. However, to the astonishment of all, Rabbi Akiba laughed. Why did he laugh? The interpretation given to the campers was that out of the darkness comes the light. Some say that the Messiah is destined to radiate someday through the darkness of Tisha B’Av.

I always thought that I understood that story, but never really did until this week in New Orleans. It was a week of contradictory disappointments. At first, I was disappointed that the scene didn’t look as bad as I had expected. I had the TV images of Katrina imprinted on my brain and, strange as it may seem, still expected to see them there. On each day’s drive, I peered anxiously at the Xs found on many New Orleans homes, gazing with trepidation at the number at the 6 o’clock position to see if corpses had been found in that house. That disappointment was followed by disappointment in myself. Why was I so selfish to think that New Orleans would stay destroyed just for me? Why couldn’t I give credit to those who had already rebuilt parts of the city? This disappointment was followed by the true disappointment of internalizing the full scope of how much is still in shambles and how much remains to be done. New Orleans has been a holy city for me in my life, and it pained me to travel through the 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish and see the continued damage and devastation.

As I prepare to leave, though, I think about the laughter of the city too in the face of this tragedy, a joy that we saw throughout the week. We saw a New Orleans style St. Patrick’s Day parade in all of its glory – beads, cabbages, potatoes, and all. We saw a rabbi ministering with fire and frivolity to a dwindling congregation as if he were preaching to a cast of thousands. We saw the youth of America hammering, painting, and working with energy to the tunes of Biggie and America’s Top 40 as the core experience of their Spring Break. We saw the residents showing their remaining possessions with pride, describing their Katrina heroism with humility, and serving their finest cuisine with love. Our Gann group laughed with one another each day, even after we ached after a hard day’s work and a hard week of processing the aftermath of Katrina. All of this reassured me that New Orleans is still a city where the good times roll.

As I tried to sort out the laughter and pain of the past week, an insight hit me today on this last day of work. My role today was to pull nails out of the ceiling and wall to prepare it for a new coat of primer and paint. Something struck me about the fact that I was taking apart more than rebuilding New Orleans. However, it made perfect sense more than ever before how we need to deconstruct a little before we reconstruct. We have to take the nails out of the wall before covering them over and moving on. This seems to be the metaphor for the city of New Orleans and our country at this moment. There are many painful nails being pulled from America’s wall with the holes still remaining. Where will we find that primer and new coat of paint?

I came to New Orleans post-Katrina, the symbol of a broken American community that was the cause of so much despair. I leave with a tremendous sense of hope, inspired by the thousands that have joined me in the seemingly Sisyphean task of rebuilding a city and, more importantly, the resilience of the thousands of residents who love their home, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and persevere. I saw that hope today in the glimmering eyes of a mother who, with their 2 children, cut the ribbon to a beautiful new home built by the St. Bernard Project. Unfortunately, I won’t be there to see Buster and his wife cut the ribbon to his home, the home that I helped to rebuild by pulling nails from a wall. However, when that day comes, some part of Gann Academy and of me will be in the holes of those walls, whispering softly and sweetly the words that those affected by Katrina have longed to hear: “Welcome home.”


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It's About The Residents

Quote of the day: “People have to make a choice about whether to come back. For me it was between being with my family or beauty. I personally choose my family”

--Violet, homeowner in St. Bernard Parish

Thirty one months. Two and a half years. Nine hundred twenty days. No matter how you say it, the time that has passed since the “final” affects of Hurricane Katrina has been substantial. But we love fads in this country. Fads that range from clothing, music, sports teams, and even relief efforts. How many people have wondered what the aftermath of the Tsunami has been since the initial outburst of support? How many people still think about the state in which New Orleans is still in? Better yet, how many people actually know about the suffering that continues here? It is up to us to help remind people that there is still work to be done. It is for the thousands of residents still living in FEMA trailers. It is for those that don’t have time to work on their house, when they still need to work to pay their bills. And it is for those that simply are unable to do the work and cannot afford it.

Things are getting better, but all is not well. Many people are moving back into the most devastated areas. Many sections still appear to be deserted, but there are people coming back. Unfortunately the tourists that come down and do not venture out of the Garden District and French Quarter will not truly understand that for many people things are still bad and that New Orleans has changed dramatically. It is not until you listen to the stories and see the mass destruction that you truly begin to understand the gravity of the situation. People are still haunted from the flood waters rising in their home while they scrambled to reach their roof. Others still recall with sadness the three day trip they did prior to the storm in order to evacuate that turned into 4 months.

So what can we do? We can listen to them tell their stories and then pass them on. We can volunteer our time to help them rebuild. But if we can’t do those things, we should at least be able to keep them in our hearts and minds. We should be disturbed that as a country we have let this happen to an entire city. My hopes are that as the months continue to pass, we take the time to step back from our busy lives and remember that these people deserve more than they are currently getting from all of us.


Today, our group worked to put siding up on a house that will become the new house to resident of the Lower Ninth Ward Theresa. The people near our site are very friendly, and one can see how thankful they are for the help they receive. After finishing the tiresome but important work on the left side of the building, we began work on the back and right side. We celebrated our supervisor Zach’s birthday with pizza and then nearly finished the back wall. Building Teresa’s home is a slow process, but we take pleasure in knowing that to one person, we will make a difference.

-Ethan, March 18, 2008

Today our group had the opportunity to meet the homeowner for the house we were working on. This had a huge impact on us. By knowing who we were doing the work for, and that they were such nice people, made me think more about the work I was doing. It motivated me to work even harder and do the job with much more care. While I know that I should be willing to do the work with same determination at a home where I have not met the owner, I did not want to let down the people I met.


Today we worked at a house in Saint Bernard’s Parish, a quaint little town on the out skirts of the city of New Orleans. There we met one of the nicest people I have ever been acquainted with by the name of Violet. This woman had everything stripped from her. Her house, her belongings, her way of life and still she kept up the happiest of attitudes towards her situation. Instead of telling us stories about tragedy and loss, Violet told tales of how here family photos survived the waters of Katrina and of how her dog managed to survive the hurricane. It instilled in me a sense of awe how someone could go through so much and still give out such a great aura. It just goes to show southern hospitality will never die. What truly amazed me though is the stories we have heard from all the survivors have all been terrible, awful and sad. But through it all they maintain the attitude that they will persevere, carry on and never give up no matter what. This is why the people of New Orleans are the nicest, friendliest and most wonderful people in all of America. This is what America should strive for. To appreciate every breath that enters your lungs.

-Jesse G.

Today was the first day we got to interact with the people whose houses we have been working on. Our morning started off rather tediously, as we did mold remediation; as a result, no one was really exerting themselves all that much. The highlight of our day came when we spoke with the victims of Hurricane Katrina whose houses we had been repairing. We got to hear first hand accounts of their stories of survival. But as they praised us for the volunteer work we had been doing at their houses and offered to cook us traditional New Orleans cuisine for lunch, we gained new incentive to work harder the next day. We want to repay them for all their praise and hospitality by working even harder tomorrow so that we can let them live in their house even sooner. Our experiences today gave new meaning to the work we have been doing in New Orleans.

--Marcus and Ari

Monday, March 17, 2008

A New Perspective

Quote of the Day: “When you do the work for yourself you may cut corners. So we follow the grandparent rule. We do the work like it is for our grandparents. We don’t cut corners and we want to make sure we get it right the first time.”

-Zach, co-founder of St. Bernard Project

Today the group travelled through the 9th Ward to reach St. Bernard’s Parish. While the first few days of the trip had been very meaningful and the group did a lot of great work, it was not until 8am this morning that the lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina was truly felt. Due to flood waters, there was not a single home for the 65000 pre-Katrina residents that was considered to be habitable. With 75% home ownership and unemployment rate below 4%, this was a vibrant working class community before the storm.

Today’s work was organized by a fantastic grassroots organization called St Bernard Project: The organization was started by volunteers that came down to New Orleans to help and felt like the community needed more support. In the past two years they have built 111 homes, are currently working on 25 homes, and have a waiting list of 200 homes. Each home takes approximately 10 weeks to complete and costs about $10000 to rebuild with volunteer labor.

Gann was sent to two separate homes. One group worked on putting up siding on a home and the other painted the interior of another home. The siding crew will continue to work at their site for the remainder of the week, while the other crew will be brought to a new site because the work was completed ahead of schedule and some supplies had not yet come in. Everyone put in about a 7 hour work day. With 21 volunteers, one day’s work was equivalent to 147 hours that the resident would need to do on his/her own on their days off.


Today we went to the St. Bernard’s Parish and we painted a house. Marcus, Ari, and I were having a great time painting the bathroom, while Tali and Nancy were in the other room listening to music and singing…not so well! There was a paint fight that broke out with almost all of the group which was really fun. Tali, Nancy and me all ganged up on Mikey with some water. Once the whole house was painted(it was really a two day job but we finished in one) we were on the way back to where we were staying and we drove through the 9th ward, which was something indescribable. We saw so many homes that were falling down and that had the markings from when the people went through to check for people. The feeling in the van was intense and you could feel the surprise that people were feeling when they saw the homes. I couldn’t stop looking at all of the homes that were still not fixed and there were totally not livable. There were so many that when you would look down a street you could see them all the way down. I didn’t think that it was still going to be as bad as it was. Seeing all the homes that hadn’t gotten fixed and thinking about all of the people who lived there made me very thankful for what I have. I can’t wait to help with more homes while we are down here and I want to come back to help again when I can.


Yesterday was my fourth day in New Orleans. Last night we had dinner at a family friend’s of the Avery- Peck family. After a really good---delicious meal and some fun play in the yard we snuggled into a living room to hear stories from this family as well as Lev’s former babysitter. This family would definitely be classified as a well off upper class family while Lev’s babysitter was not only middle class but also African American. It was really great for us to hear two totally different experiences from two people experiencing the same devastating disaster. At first the family told us of how they had to leave town and thought that they would only be packing for a long weekend and were very much in shock when they found out that they would be gone for the next three months. They talked about the uncertainty, fear, and stresses (brought about by this hurricane) due to the fact that they were not able to access their bank accounts for some time and were not able to contact relatives or friends to see if they were safe. The family’s stories were definitely impactful but until Earlene (Lev’s babysitter) shared her story we had no idea the extent of the pain people went through. Earlene shared with us her stories as tears rolled down her cheeks. She expressed her anger with Mayor Nagin and the government for not helping quicker and broke down when she started to talk about what happened in the Super Dome. She repeated many times how families were ripped apart and that the national guard where aiming guns at little children and mothers pointing them where to go. Even though all this is so horrific what really shocked me the most to hear from Earlene was that children were being raped in this place that was there to save people; the irony of this was baffling to me. Earlene’s story was truly incredible and eye opening to me but the contrast between the two stories was even more intriguing to me. Earlene and her granddaughter, who also spoke, spoke a lot of the racial separation brought about from Katrina. They didn’t by any means deny that there was racism before but they talked about how the intensity between races had increased by a lot. I know I’m rambling but one more thing that truly truly surprised me was something that Earlene’s granddaughter told us. She said that despite what most people think that when everyone was in need the African American’s community didn’t come together to support each other like she would have liked. It came to the point that one time her car broke down and she saw many many African American’s drive by and finally a white person pulled over to help her. Her exact quote was that “if you were standing there on fire and there was a black person standing next to you they wouldn’t go get water to douse the fire.” This was incredibly surprising to me because I had always thought that black people had a sort of connection like Jews do.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Putting the Work in Context

March 16th, 2008

Quote of the Day: “I was in the Superdome and it was hell. And I don’t wish that on anybody...If I were to do it again, I would have stayed on Claiborne Ave and slept there.”

Tonight we had the huge privilege of going to the Stern’s house, a family friend of Lev’s. We were also lucky enough to hear Lev’s former baby sitter, Earlene, and her granddaughter, Jessica, speak along with the Sterns. Something that seemed to strike a lot of the group was a certain similarity between the situation after Katrina and the Holocaust. Earlene told us that when people in the Superdome were being bussed elsewhere, families were completely divided. She described the process saying, “If there was a mom with three kids, but the bus could only hold three more they’d just take the first three in line.” In short, it didn’t matter how many families were divided or how old a child was who was left behind. We were all shocked at how alike this process was to the family separations at the concentration camps. While they are different circumstances one can’t help but be reminded of the similar situation 60 years ago.

A lot of us also noted the racial differences in the stories we heard. In a documentary we watched before the trip, the African Americans were very offended by the term “refugees.” However, our host, Chuck, referred to himself as a refugee because he was unable to answer questions about his home in New Orleans and he didn’t know how his home’s status was. This differed from the view we heard from the people in the movie; they felt as if being called a refugee meant that they were no longer citizens of the country because their houses were destroyed. Tonight’s remarks by residents gave us a first hand account of the pain and suffering the aftermath of the hurricane caused and made the experience more real for us.



We met an Israeli named Ami at shul on Saturday who had moved to New Orleans 7 years ago and asked us for help with his house. Even two and a half years after the hurricane, his house showed tremendous signs of damage, and his yard was a complete wreck: fallen trees, metal, glass, and bricks were strewn across his property. He is only allowed to throw out a certain amount of trash each week, so since the hurricane he has been cleaning up his yard bit by bit and slowly rebuilding his house. He described to us how difficult his life has been since Katrina—lack of insurance, a car accident and low income have been extremely painful, both physically and emotionally. He expressed enormous gratitude at our being there, and it was rewarding to see the improvements we made in cleaning up his yard. He promised us that the next time we visited New Orleans, he would host us, and then gave Jesse G. a free haircut (he is a professional hairstylist.)


Quotes from Paulie:
“You start the day in New Orleans with a plan, and then the day happens.”
“Anyone can build a structure, but when it’s built with love, it’s a church.”
“There is one prayer that I truly believe in. It is ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re Welcome.’ So thank you.”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Shabbat, New Orleans Style

Quote of the Day: "We have a minyan for mincha!" --Rabbi Nahum Amamosi

We started off the day with a lovely shabbos service, which many NOLA members participated in. The enthusiastic Yemenite rabbi taught us many insightful things. Following the service, we joined the congregation for a Kiddush lunch, including cold cuts, chollent, and a tasty chocolate cake. To make the morning even more special, we helped make a minyan for Mincha. The Rabbi and other members of the synagogue were extremely appreciative. After Katrina, most of the synagogue’s congregation did not return and they normally are only able to have Shabbat morning services. After saying we would help make a minyan for Shabbat mincha, the rabbi hugged an older member of the synagogue and exclaimed with a smile from ear to ear “We have a minyan for mincha!”

After, minyan we returned to the hostel for a short respite and heard there was a parade passing by. This wasn’t any ordinary parade, but this was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the city known for its festive celebrations. The entire group sped down to the street to the parade and lined up at the fences. After pushing our way through the crowd, most of us reached the front and were screaming and piling up beads around our necks. Tali even got a colored mark on the back of her neck from the festive colored beads! Jess collected the most beads, Moriah collected a green and white hat, Arielle retrieved some stuff animals, and everyone contributed their beads for a NOLA benefit concert in Boston.

After the exhilarating parade, the group trekked back to the hostel almost as excited as they were on the way there—but this time decked out with thousands of beads and other “chachkies.” The group then split up: some went on a walk around the neighborhood and some relaxed in front of the air conditioning. After a picnic dinner of falafel and hummus, the 21 Gann explorers packed back up into the 15 seater and mini-van with all of their luggage and headed to their next overnight location. We arrived at a Methodist church, our next lodging, and waited for the signal to unload the vans. After an hour of waiting and hanging out outside, the signal was called and the suitcases came out of the vans. Once settled in each room, the NOLA crew went to bed ready for a new day full of work and fun.

-T + N

Friday, March 14, 2008

Giving a Little Back

March 14th
New Orleans, LA

Quote of the Day: “It doesn’t matter if you build it right, as long as you build it with heart.”

After a long night of traveling and a few hours rest, we set off for our first day of work. We went to First Church, a Unitarian Universalist church, and met up with Paulie our team leader of the day who gave us our three goals. The first team set up scaffolding in order to demolish a wall. Balancing 20 feet in the air we took our turns swinging hammers into the wall. The next group built a work table from scratch using saws and power tools. And the third group set up some marking systems for drywall installation on a ceiling.

During the day we also had an opportunity to take a walk around the neighborhood. As we looked on in awe we found some houses completely intact and redone while some were in the stages of rebuilding and to most of our surprise there were houses which were still damaged and abandoned. We also saw this very clearly through our rides to and from the construction site. We all couldn’t believe the state of disrepair after two and half years since the hurricane.

Tonight, after a few hours rest and rejuvenation we will be joining the local Jewish community for Shabbat services and a chicken gumbo dinner at synagogue Anshe Sfard.

Shabbat Shalom from New Orleans,

Batya and Rebecca

March 14, 2008
New Orleans

Today was the first day of work for the Gann delegation and the group learned quickly of some of the obstacles that people face while trying to rebuild their homes. The group's trip was graciously helped planned by members outside of the Gann community that were moved by last year's group. So today, we worked to help them continue to build their volunteer center. The lesson came early on as we found out that the materials that were supposed to be used for the day's build had been delayed a week. It is New Orleans, so we can't say it was unexpected and we went with the flow. Paulie scrambled to find other work for us to do and in the end the group had a good first day learning some skills that will come in handy later in the week when we move to St. Bernard's Parish to work.

Tonight and tomorrow we will spend Shabbat with our gracious hosts at Anshe Sfard, as they've down more than we ever would have asked to help us on our trip. Tomorrow night we'll move out of the city to other accommodations for the rest of the week in Gretna to help give us better access to St. Bernard's Parish.

On the Road

March 13, 2008
Logan Airport

Although we haven’t even boarded the plane, the adventures have already begun. After getting off the bus and entering the airport, one of the NOLA workers had already left his bag outside. Luckily, EM saved the day and recovered the forgotten luggage. Tali was almost left behind since her name was entered incorrectly into the system, but soon her boarding pass was recovered as well. Despite some small hassles going through security, the group made it through and received count-off numbers. Most of the group quickly set out to explore the terminal while an already stressed out Tali realized she was missing something very important—her passport! After emptying out the five packages of gum, a deck of cards, and numerous other miscellaneous items, she remembered she had put it in her “special” pocket so she wouldn’t forget. Surprise, surprise, it was there. Good job Tali.
Tali and Nancy soon got down to the real business. They began debating over who brought more food and whose food was better. JN gave his own input and decided the homemade cookies were the best (thanks Sheryl).
The group has yet to return and the plane is ready to take off. JUST KIDDING! With 20 more minutes until boarding, everyone is excited and ready for a great flight and trip. Talk to you soon with more updates.
Thanks for reading,
Nancy and Tali

March 13, 2008
Chicago, IL

We are sitting in Chicago waiting to board the plane that will eventually lead us to New Orleans. As we patiently and anxiously await the last leg of the trip the feelings inside us are bubbling with excitement! The flight was relaxing besides the fact that Ben was poking us and waiting the entire flight for us to wake up… During the flight we had a lot of time to think as well as talk to our friends about our expectations and what we anticipate for the trip. When I first applied to be a part of this trip, I emphasized that I wanted to go because I have always felt good after helping people and I wanted that feeling again. Through the group’s meetings and preparations I realized that it doesn’t matter whether or not I feel that I am helping people, what matters is that those who have lost their homes and possessions get the help they need. -Moriah and Arielle