Local rabbis, teens help rebuild New Orleans

As two of the oldest settlements along the Mississippi River, St. Louis and New Orleans share a long history. Whether it’s their French roots, their centrality to trade or their legendary Mardi Gras celebrations, each city is replete with connections to the other.

Now they have one more indelible link – a compost pile.


“I said let’s mark it off with the bricks so we could enclose it,” recalled Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation. “A group of girls started working on it and ultimately, they decided to make it arch-shaped.

“They said we’re from St. Louis so we’ll leave a little piece of St. Louis here.”

A compost pile may not seem that impressive – even one modeled on an iconic landmark – but a delegation of 12 Jewish teens left far more than that to residents of one New Orleans neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. As part of an alternative spring break trip earlier this month, the group, led by Rosenberg and Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, spent three days clearing and digging up a vacant lot in the city’s St. Roch area near the French Quarter for conversion into a series of small garden plots.

Planting the roots of the project

The effort was part of the larger Faubourg St. Roch Project to revitalize the neighborhood, which was decimated by the 2005 hurricane. Originally the brainchild of New York architect Drew Lang, the project popped up on Rosenberg’s radar screen a year-and-a-half ago when Lang’s cousin, Jeremy Lang, a 17-year-old UH congregant began discussing the idea with her. The rabbi eventually partnered with CRC on the trip.

She said the experience proved very fulfilling for both students and local residents some of whom have felt abandoned at times once the initial relief efforts faded.

“We had people stop and say, it’s wonderful that you’re here,” Rosenberg said. “Four years ago, there were people on every corner to help. We haven’t seen a lot of people since then.”

Jeremy Lang, whose father and cousin are originally from New Orleans, said some reactions were particularly memorable. At one point a young boy who had been watching the group stopped by to lend a hand.

“I remember, he came out to where we were gardening and was very eager to grab a shovel that was bigger than him,” said Jeremy, who lives in Creve Coeur “He really wanted to make a difference for his community. That was cool.”

Jeremy said he hopes to do more projects like this one in the future. He is considering an eventual trip to Haiti or Chile to help with similar efforts there.

He wasn’t the only one to think of Haiti. Fellow UH participant Jennifer Guller said seeing the pictures of devastation from the recent Port-au-Prince earthquake played a big role in inspiring her to help.

“Things are still going on down there and people have nothing while in St. Louis we have so much,” she said. “It’s always nice just to give back.”

In addition to the six-hour workdays, there were also opportunities for enjoyment and culture in the evenings. The teens got to enjoy dinner on Bourbon Street, beignets at world famous Caf é du Monde and an opportunity to spend Friday night services at historic Temple Sinai.

Jennifer said she was impressed by the local Jewish population, which greeted the visitors warmly.

“They really welcomed us,” she said. “The rabbis and members thanked us for what we were doing there. It felt like we were at home.”

Fellow Jews weren’t the only ones to treat the St. Louisans like honored guests.

“The local people were so nice,” said Elliana Hentoff-Killian of Central Reform Congregation. “Everyone who found out what we were doing was very supportive. People who were driving by would honk their horns and give us a thumbs-up. It was a great experience.”

There were also deeper social lessons in the offing.

“For the richer people Hurricane Katrina happened and for them it was over. It happened. It was done. End of story,” said Elliana, 17. “But in the poorer communities you could see that they were still recovering from it, still trying to rebuild their community.”

Talve said that point struck her as well.

“There are some areas where you wouldn’t know it hit,” she said. “But there were some areas where there just aren’t any resources. The place we were in, St. Roch, you could tell the church had been rebuilt and they had done a great job but there is still a lot that needs to be done.”

Lessons from the earth and unearthed

The teens also learned a different kind of lesson, one about history – or perhaps modern day archeology of a sort. Rosenberg said that as they dug they were surprised at the amount of debris sunk into the soil. The group unearthed everything from buttons and flip-flop shoes to pipes and lots of old bricks.

“You name it, we found it in the ground,” she said. “An engineer came out and talked to us and said that some of these bricks might have been part of the road a hundred years ago and when they built the houses on these properties, they just put fill sand on top of it and then built.”

But the most valuable lessons for the students, six from UH, five from CRC and one from Congregation Shaare Emeth, may have been about themselves. Talve said they worked hard to clean debris, cut weeds, turn soil and prepare the ground for individual plots to be tended by families who live in the area. They even purchased and painted a cement bench, writing their names on it for posterity.

“The kids really got it,” she said. “I think they could feel that what they were doing was making a difference.”

It’s a difference that may follow the group back to St. Louis. Rosenberg said that the students quickly found that they weren’t just helping to build the St. Roch community but their own as well.

“Thursday morning when we got to the worksite, it really was two separate groups,” she said. “But by the end of the trip, you didn’t know who was from where. Everybody had bonded because of the nature of the work. They began to realize that they had to rely on one another.”

By the weekend, she was hearing the same sentiment over and over again: Let’s not lose contact with each other. It struck her as almost humorous at one point.

“I looked at them and said, “You know guys, it’s just so funny that you are saying that because you all live in the same city,'” she laughed. “You might live in Clayton and you might live in Chesterfield but you really can keep in touch.”

Talve is confident the lessons will last a lifetime.

“It was humbling how grateful people were,” she said. “That’s true with all situations like this. You get so much more than you give.”