In late January I attended the Jewish Community Center Association Leadership Retreat and Executive Seminars. On the second day of the retreat, along with 80 other execs, I rolled up my sleeves, put on a hard hat, and got to work in New Orleans to help gut a local YWCA battered women's shelter and day care center to prepare it for reconstruction.
The only full-service YWCA in the area, the building had been flooded by four feet of water during Hurricane Katrina a year and a half ago.
While usually held in Florida or Arizona, the meeting took place in New Orleans this year to show support to the embattled city and its JCC. Last January, the JCC Association presented the New Orleans JCC with $250,000 raised with the help of many JCCs but as JCCA President Allen Finkelstein said, "we realized immediately that money alone would not suffice to express our ongoing support for their efforts to rebuild. We decided at that time to forego our usual locations for these retreats and seminars, and to show our support by bringing our colleagues to New Orleans."
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Augusta Jewish Community Center (AJCC) held a Cajun Night to raise money for the New Orleans Jewish Community Center, while the Jewish Federation directed fund-raising efforts for victims of the flood.
One day of the retreat was devoted to Tikkun Olam - repairing the world. In the early morning we studied Jewish texts that referred to this important concept. Before ripping out rotted drywall and carting away moldy debris, our group toured the damaged areas where many Jews had lived and visited Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue that suffered devastating flooding.
You may remember pictures of water soaked Torahs being carried out of the synagogue. Not only were seven Torahs destroyed, but also 2,600 prayer books, and thousands of other books.
Along the route we saw whole neighborhoods flattened to the ground. We saw houses with large "X's" on them, with information in each quadrant: who had checked the house; the date; the number of live people found inside, and number of dead. It was chilling to see house after house with these numbers.
Once we arrived at the YWCA, we worked under the supervision of Nechama: A Jewish Response to Disaster. Nechama has been in New Orleans for more than a year, doing the time-consuming and expensive demolition required before people can rebuild.
The downstairs level of the YWCA had been completely flooded. When the waters receded, they left devastation in their wake. In order to reopen, the YWCA would have to demolish the entire inside of a very solid building. Hiring a demolition company would have cost the YWCA hundreds of thousands of dollars they did not have.
The YWCA Board thought they would have to abandon the building. That is, until volunteers offered to help. Our task was to continue the demolition already begun by volunteers under the auspices of Nechama.
Because the water was so toxic, everything it touched was also toxic. In order to work inside, we needed to wear old clothes and don hardhats, masks that included a breathing apparatus and gardener's gloves. We were handed picks and shovels.
My group worked in the office area. We pulled out moldy computers, office furniture and file cabinets. As we removed financial ledgers from shelves, the shelves fell apart. When all the big items were removed, we set to demolishing the sheetrock walls, taking out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of debris. We worked steadily for several hours and together with other teams, managed to haul out two mountains of debris, four feet high and a block long.
Before leaving, we gathered together to plant a tree next to the building, a symbol of the rebirth that would eventually take place.
Many of us sent donations or participated in fund-raising events to aid the victims of Katrina. Being able to actually do something concrete by helping the YWCA to reopen was an honor. It was an unforgettable experience to be part of a Jewish response.
Leah Ronen is the executive director of the Augusta Jewish Federation and the Augusta Jewish Community Center, in Evans.
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