"Do I use the flat head nails or the grooved nails when hanging siding on the house?" "Does foam insulation go underneath the Tyvek wrap around the entire house or just in certain parts?" "When putting in a staircase do you go from top to bottom or bottom to top?"
These were just a few of the questions that were overheard on the Habitat for Humanity worksite in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans during Golda Och Academy's 6th Annual Katrina Relief mission over the first week of December. Twenty students and three teachers made the trip and represented our school and community with pride as they volunteered in a local public school, toured the devastated areas and helped to build a home for a family in need. In six years, 120 Golda Och students have worked on twenty homes, built walls and handicap accessible ramps, painted the interior and exterior of houses, caulked, hammered, and so much more. They have read stories to children in need and have worked hard to do their part in assisting with the rebuilding process -- physically, mentally, and financially.
While attention to New Orleans has faded over the years, we continue to go there because there is a need. There is a community that we have grown very close to and, to take our lead from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), it is certainly not our job to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it.
Interestingly enough, our students understood this lesson to the fullest while standing in the Lower 9th Ward, on a street corner where Trinity Lutheran Church stands on one side and hundreds of destroyed homes can be seen just across the street. They learned this valuable lesson while talking to a middle-aged African-American man who has dedicated his life to his family and friends. Robert Green is one of those people that we at Golda Och Academy talk about when referring to our friends in New Orleans. Robert lived to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina, a story that begins with the loss of his mother, 3-year-old granddaughter and all of his earthly possessions and ends with a positive message of hope for a better future.
Of the over two thousand people who lived in the Lower 9th ward prior to the storm, only a hundred or so were left when the flood waters receded. Many had died and the rest had fled to higher ground. Robert remained, lived in a FEMA trailer for three years until his new house was built, and spent every day in between working to rebuild his neighborhood and beloved church. He kept in touch with friends from the neighborhood and used every connection he had to gain the valuable resources necessary to rebuild Trinity Lutheran.
Today there are over 500 people back in Robert's Lower 9th neighborhood -- a place that is best described as a tremendous work in progress. Brad Pitt and the Make It Right Foundation have brought a tremendous amount of attention to the area as they have worked hard to build environmentally friendly homes on lots that once held very small and modest houses. While many might believe that such an influx of celebrity money might cause the neighborhood to lose its character, rest assured that Robert is there to make sure that does not happen.
As we circled the neighborhood with Robert in our bus, he pointed out houses to the students, not by their color, but by the first and last name of the person living there. He knows their names, because he made sure that they came back to reclaim that which was rightfully theirs.
In the few hours that our students spent with Robert, both on the bus and in the church, the words of Pirkei Avot did indeed ring true. This lesson that they had learned at first in their Judaics classroom at Golda Och Academy, was now coming to life in a Lutheran church over a thousand miles away. Robert Green, a true American hero, explained to this group of students that it is in fact their work that gives him hope. It is their volunteer hours and desire to make the world a better place that makes him feel good about the world that he will one day leave behind. A man who wakes up every morning and steps outside his front door just in case there is someone there to say hi to or to invite back to the neighborhood, told us that we inspired him. If we look at the words of Pirkei Avot as a continuum on par with the life we live, then it all makes sense -- individually we all have a role to play in order that the chain not be broken.
Yes, we certainly did not refrain from our tasks as we sided the house, built staircases, and insulated the outer walls. We all thought that we were in New Orleans to help others in need and to enrich their lives; but in the end when we got on our plane to come home it was our group of 23 that had learned so much more along the way. Tikkun olam (repair of the world) begins when we help others and continues when we look deeper and understand how much we are helping ourselves as well.