AJC hosts New Orleans learn and rebuild initiative

AJC hosts New Orleans learn and rebuild initiative

Cleveland Jewish News

Thirty-two young Jewish adults from across the nation descended upon Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans this past President’s Day weekend as part of an initiative organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

The Access: AJC’s New Generations Program group was led by Rebecca Neuwirth, director of special projects at their New York headquarters.

“They all really were concerned about New Orleans and really wanted to help,” explained Neuwirth.

The goal was to give AJC’s young members an opportunity for a “hands on” approach to help rebuild parts of the city still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina nearly six months ago. Much of the trip also was spent meeting with local officials and residents to gather information on the progress being made to return the city to normalcy.

Neuwirth described the group as “shocked” at what they saw on their fact-finding mission. “They need to get the message out to their communities back home and to their state legislators,” she said.

The weekend began with a visit to Gates of Prayer Synagogue on Friday evening where the group met with Rabbi Robert Loewy and other congregation members for Shabbat services. The group saw the $1-million estimated damage to the Metairie structure that stretched from the sunken sanctuary and throughout the building.

AJC members also met with a group from Congregation Beth Israel (Orthodox), who were conducting their own services in the rear of the Reform temple’s building as part of a Shabbaton. Beth Israel and Gates of Prayer both received $125,000 checks from the AJC at the end of 2005.

Saturday morning, the group inspected the levee-breached, heavily Jewish area of Lakewood South. Resident Ann Bennett and her son-in-law Harry Lazarus conducted the group on a personal tour of her damaged residence. They also entered a neighbor’s FEMA trailer set up next door to get an idea of what residents intent on rebuilding must endure.

Neuwirth presented a check for $100,000 on behalf of the AJC to Dr. Norman Francis, Xavier University president, to help his largely African-American campus recover. AJC had previously given large grants to Dillard and Southern Universities, similar institutions hit hard by the storm’s flooding. Francis “spoke about black-Jewish relations and how important they were to him in his life,” said Neuwirth.

On Sunday, The Common Ground Collective, a local grass roots organization, coordinated work projects at three wrecked homes in the hard-hit Ninth Ward area. Other volunteers repainted the gymnasium of the recently-reopened Torah Academy and cleaned and repaired its kitchen. Still others helped to restore the library by shelving thousands of religious, children’s, and reference books at Gates of Prayer Synagogue.

Later, the group met with students and faculty at Xavier University to hear first-hand accounts of survival during the storm. In addition to New York, the group of mostly young professionals represented AJC chapters in Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

“Some have been here often and some have never been here before,” said Neuwirth in speaking about the contingent. “One person grew up in The Big Easy.”

“A lot of people are really motivated to bring a lot more people back to New Orleans,” she continued. “We need to focus the attention of our nation on what’s happening in New Orleans and the larger region.”

Alan Smason covered this story for the CJN while in New Orleans attempting to repair his own heavily-damaged residence.

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