Chesed down on the Bayou

JSU service trip to New Orleans

By Sam Zitin

Over President’s Day weekend, I was pleased to help chaperone a Jewish Student Union (JSU) relief trip to New Orleans. Eight students, Rabbi Yitzchak Staum and I traveled there Wednesday, Feb. 12 to join other staff and students from all over the Midwest. Forty of us together embarked on an incredible five-day journey of dedication and discovery.

JSU endeavors throughout the clubs we run in schools, and the programs we run outside of schools, to provide opportunities for students to experience their Judaism in a real and practical way. For several years we have provided trips to other cities for JSU students but this year we added a chesed component and combined the exciting travel with a volunteer opportunity.

Bright and early Thursday morning we travelled from our hotel to the lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, and worked with Habitat for Humanity to help complete a rental home project. We were able to help with sanding, paint prep, painting, cutting trim and installing baseboard. All the while we had an amazing time, we were also able to interact with New Orleans residents (Habitat staff) and really get a feel for what the people of New Orleans went through, as well as how extensive the rebuilding and relief efforts were. After a hard day’s work we capped it off with a fantastic dinner at Casablanca Kosher restaurant and a good night’s sleep to prepare for our next day of volunteering.

Friday we continued our volunteering with the NOLA Tree Project, which is dedicated to replanting the 100,000 trees that New Orleans lost in Hurricane Katrina. Our group planted over 40 new trees and additional shrubs. After our planting was finished, we were given the opportunity to tour the Ninth Ward. Guided by Cassie from the NOLA Tree project, we visited the Hurricane Katrina memorial where we learned more of the tragic history of the storm and its effect on the city.

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As amazing as the volunteer opportunities were, for me (and I believe most of the participants on the trip) the most meaningful and amazing part was Shabbat. In addition to having a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat together with songs and dance, we had a wonderful family style Shabbat meal. After dinner, we had the first of several educational sessions. We broke up into small groups for learning and delved specifically into the Torah ideas about chesed and tzedakah, exploring their textual sources and some 

of the philosophical implications for our day-to-day lives.  The participants’ faces lit up as they made connection after connection and began to see the beauty of their religious tradition reflected in the volunteer efforts they had just undertaken. 

Saturday allowed time for more learning sessions, expanding and broadening the ideas we began the night before. Tellingly, many of the students on the trip asked me whether we could continue to learn and discuss various topics of Jewish philosophy during their free time rather than nap or play games. The atmosphere was electric and was one of the most inspiring I’ve been privileged to be a part of.

Following Havdallah Saturday night, we began our “touristy” segment of the trip. We traveled to the French Quarter for a carriage tour. Sunday was packed with a Mardi Gras parade, an airboat swamp tour, dinner at Kosher Cajun and finally a jazz concert at world-famous Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. 

The absolute high point of the trip for me wasn’t the concert itself, but while we were waiting in line in the street for almost an hour. That’s when Rabbi Nati Stern (JSU director Kansas City) took out his guitar and began playing the tune to a niggun (wordless song) we had learned over Shabbos. In the middle of the French Quarter of New Orleans, 30 students began singing along, their voices joined spontaneously and produced an energy I’ve rarely felt. 

Passersby began dancing and singing along with us until a representative from the venue asked us to be quiet because we were so loud and affecting the music inside. Another passerby in the street congratulated us for possibly being the only musical act to ever be shushed in the French Quarter!

All told, this was one of the most inspiring weekends I’ve ever spent in my entire life. The acts of chesed, learning, discussions and general atmosphere will never be forgotten. I look forward to many more chesed-based trips from JSU in the future.

Sam Zitin is Associate Director of Development for Jewish Student Union of St. Louis and Chapter Advisor for National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY).