Despite the eight hour drive there and back, our trip to New Orleans was absolutely amazing. Equipped with a list of car games, such as keeping a list of different state license plates, and car challenges, like choreographing a “car dance,” having seven people crammed into one van didn’t seem so bad. Not to mention that the trip allowed us to discover our newfound obsession with trail-mix. Our group left Thursday afternoon and drove about halfway to a Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi that offered to let us spend the night. We even had the opportunity to meet with the camp’s junior counselors. And, thanks to Jewish Geography, we discovered that a couple of us even knew each other from before! We left early Friday morning to finish the drive and arrived in New Orleans by midday.
Our first stop in New Orleans was the French Quarter. From the French Market to innumerable tourist shops, I can confidently say that all of us spent a full hour and a half exploring the neighborhood, eating amazing food, and buying (slightly cheesy) souvenirs. Of course, we finished the afternoon with a trip to the renowned, and Kosher, Café Du Monde for beignets.
That night, we davened Kabbalat Shabbat at a local synagogue. The Rabbi and his wife, Ethan Linden and Liba Kornfeld, graciously invited us back to their home for a wonderful dinner. We concluded the meal with singing and our weekly tradition of “High, Low, Hero”—an activity in which each member shares their favorite and least favorite moment of the week along with a shout out to a person the group that they admire.
After Saturday morning services, in which many of our group led services or read Torah, we walked back to our home for the weekend and spent the day relaxing; napping, reading, playing cards, and walking on the levees. We ended Shabbat by having a discussion with Rabbi Ethan Linden about Judaism in New Orleans and enjoying another wonderful meal at Ethan and Liba’s house.
On Sunday morning, we were given the privilege of having Mark Schleifstein, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, speak to us about Hurricane Katrina. He talked about everything from why the storm was so catastrophic to current rebuilding in the city, and even shared his own personal story of having the entire first floor and much of the second story of his house submerged by the flood. Afterward, we were given a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, the area most affected by Hurricane Katrina, by another man who grew up there and lost his home in the storm. I believe the entire group was stunned to see that nearly five years after Katrina, many streets still appear barren and uninhabited. Our afternoon was spent touring Mardi Gras World, a museum housing hundreds of past parade floats. At night, we ate, watched a minor league baseball game, and we all cheered for the New Orleans Zephyrs. However, one of the greatest highlights of the trip must have been at 10:30pm, when we somehow managed to convince our staff (because they’re the best staff ever!) to take us on a late-night beignet run. Looking back, eating fried pastries covered with lots of powdered sugar might not have been the best decision to get to bed early for a long day on Monday, but we have no regrets whatsoever.
We returned to the Lower Ninth again on Monday morning, this time to volunteer at a community center, the Lower Ninth Ward Village. Our group weeded lawns, organized rooms, and sorted through boxes in order help to the center prepare for its upcoming summer camp. We did all of this with a group of volunteers that were a part of a Lutheran Youth Organization that brought over 25,000 teens to New Orleans to volunteer for the week! Needless to say, it was quite an interesting and positive experience volunteering and getting to know them throughout the day. At night, the start of Tisha B’av, we went to synagogue to hear Eicha read by candlelight. Having never observed Tisha B’av outside of a camp setting, I was comforted to still experience a strong sense of community even on a day of such extreme mourning.
Tuesday, we drove all eight hours back to Little Rock. In the van, the somber attitude of the day was felt throughout our group discussions and conversations. Also, while I did manage to take a 4 hour nap in the car, I think we were all incredibly excited to return to our Shul and home. We broke our fast with a delicious pasta dinner, and everyone is ready to get back to our normal work schedule of deconstruction, painting, and shelf building this week!