Jewish teens from Greater Boston, ages 16+, have gone from hitting the books to hitting nails in New Orleans, LA through Habitat for Humanity’s alternative spring break program:
Day 1: We had a great first day here in the Big Easy! After sleeping in a little bit after last night’s late-night arrival, we made a run to the nearby grocery store to get snacks and lunch supplies for our work week (we’ll be making our sandwiches daily at the work site).
Because it was a little rainy this morning, we switched around our plans and made our way straight to the World War II Museum. This is an incredible museum…interactive exhibits and so much information, we honestly could have spent the whole day there. After learning about D-Day (did you know the Allies employed movie studios to help make a fake army base at Pas-de-Calais do distract the Germans?), we saw a 4-D movie called “Beyond All Boundaries,” where we learned more about America’s involvement in the war (bonus: narrated by Tom Hanks!). Then we had some time to explore parts of the museum on our own before we participated in a submarine simulation (you can see in the pictures some of the teens holding their identity cards from the mission).
After the museum, we made our way to the famous Cafe Du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. If you’re not familiar with the beignet (ben-YAY), it is a French pastry that is fried dough covered with powdered sugar, and dips quite nicely in the aforementioned cafe au lait (or hot chocolate). I don’t want to exaggerate but if there’s a heaven, this is for sure one of the foods they serve up there. After enjoying this divine delectable, the group had some free time in the French Quarter. We explored shops, galleries, cafes, hot sauce stores, and more in this architecturally stunning and historical neighborhood. Before dinner, we discussed the work we’d be starting tomorrow with Habitat, and everyone had a chance to share highlights of the trip so far. We also looked at the biblical verse “tzedek tzedek tirdof, (Justice, justice shall you pursue)” as a frame for our work this week.
After a delicious dinner at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen (which is way better than California Pizza Kitchen), we made our way to Snug Harbor for some New Orleans jazz courtesy of the Charmaine Neville Band. There, we also got to meet up with the crew from Shir Tikvah in Winchester, who are also down in New Orleans volunteering over the break. Charmaine got the audience singing and we had a blast, whether she was singing about the girl from Ipanema or Minne the Moocher. Now we’re back at the hotel resting up for our first day at the work site.
Tomorrow…we get to work!
Day 2: Today was our first day at our buildsite, which is in the eastern part of the city (known colloquially as New Orleans East). We arrived at our site to find our house and our site manager, Lizzie. After Lizzie told us a bit about the work that Habitat does, she gave us the safety shpiel and then we got to work! The house we’re working on is pretty far along in its process, so for the first part of the morning we painted the exterior of the house. As the rain picked up a bit we moved inside to work on the inside; doors, frames, and trim needed our attention and there was caulking to be done.
During lunch we enjoyed some relaxing music (as opposed to the more upbeat, high-energy music we listen to when we work) and the sandwiches we made with our lunch fixins. After lunch, we had the energy to continue to make this house beautiful, and as the rain cleared in the afternoon some of us were able to make our way out to do some more exterior work. The group is eager to work, and are quick learners in a variety of new skills/tasks they’ve learned. It’s only been one day, but already we can see progress on the house.
Covered in paint, mud, and satisfaction, the group loaded up the cars and returned to the hotel to wash up and shower before tonight’s evening program, which I must say took a surprising turn. We had planned on a walking tour in the French Quarter, but because it had rained most of the day and the forecast said rain, we decided as a group not to risk a cold, wet, and uncomfortable evening, and opted instead for dinner at a delightful diner where a woman named Debbie, a resident of New Orleans for over 60 years, made a point to come over to our table and thank the group for volunteering, and how their work meant so much to the city. This highlighted for the group not only how friendly the folks down here are, but also how significant their decision to spend their vacation helping others was.
After the diner, we went to a nearby mall to finish off the night with a little strolling, shopping, and even ice skating on a synthetic ice rink! Though we were bummed to miss the French Quarter tonight, the group had a fun, low-key night after a good day of work. In tonight’s debrief, some of the words people used to describe how they were feeling included “accomplished,” “proud,” and “excited.” The group is feeling good about the work we’re doing, and excited to see more of New Orleans in the coming days.
Can’t wait to share what tomorrow brings!
Day 3: It’s hard to believe it, but we’re almost halfway through our trip…when did that happen?! Today was another great day at the buildsite. First off, the morning was much warmer than it’s been, so that was a nice change of pace (even if it was a little muggy…we’ll take it!). We started off the day by taking a group shot in our Habitat Vests. You may notice they have both the JTI logo and the Marblehead Bank logo. Marblehead Bank makes a generous donation in support of this trip to help us with the swag, and we appreciate their inVESTment in us (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
The work day saw a variety of jobs; cutting and putting up trim, installing doors, painting, caulking, and more. The weather decided to wait until just as we were finishing lunch to start raining, and we spent the afternoon continuing to work inside on the house. The group has been doing a great job of keeping energy high and being eager to work…it is apropos that tonight before we went out we talked about the rabbinic quote “it is not upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” and the idea of service as a Jewish value.
Tonight’s evening activity was dinner and arcade at Dave and Busters. The group had a great time playing games, winning tickets (did you know tickets are electronic now, not actual physical tickets you have to carry around and count?), and redeeming the aforementioned tickets for prizes that ranged from fuzzy pillows to card games (which they subsequently played in our meeting room before lights out tonight).
All in all, another great day here in New Orleans. We’re excited for bowling and live music tomorrow, but for now everyone is burritoed up in their blankets sleeping and dreaming sweet dreams of swinging hammers and humming miter saws.
Day 4: Today was not only the best day of work we’ve had so far, it was also the nicest weather-wise. The day started off a little rainy in the morning, but but mid-morning the sun was peeking through the clouds enough to dry the ground for an outdoor lunch. By the afternoon, it was sunny and warm…don’t worry, everyone is drinking water!
It’s at the point in the trip where it’s frankly a shame we’re leaving soon, because people feel so comfortable at the build site. We’re rarely “teaching” skills at this point, mostly supervising and spot-checking. The teens are really doing this work and you can see that they take pride in it. Our site manager, Lizzie, had a large list of “to-do’s” today, and I’m proud to say that we checked off everything and, with the help of the sunshine, even got a lot of exterior painting and soffit installation done.
I should also point out that for one person on the trip, the day started with balloons because it’s her birthday! Amanda turned 17 today, and we’re so glad that her folks have let her celebrate the big 1-7 with us…birthday celebrations included singing and delicious birthday cake tonight, as well as some gifts and a card that everyone (even Lizzie!) signed.
Before heading out for Mexican dinner tonight, the group listened to the song “Waiting on the World To Change” and shared some great insight into the song, from frustrations with society and government to the knowledge that the world is their responsibility, and the idea that it’s not enough to let someone else make something happen, we have to be agents of change.
After a musical text study and dinner we had a great evening at Rock N’ Bowl. In addition to bowling (and eating cake to celebrate Amanda) we got to hear live Zydeco music, continuing our exploration of New Orleans’ musical heritage. The group came back and hung out in the meeting room playing cards until lights out, and now it’s time to get some shut-eye before our final day at the build site.
Day 5: Although today was only a half-day at our build site, we once again accomplished everything on Lizzie’s To Do List, from soffit and painting to shelving and caulking. We were sad to say farewell to Lizzie and the house on Dorian St that we’ve come to think of as our own, but we left feeling proud of the work we’d done. Today, during lunch, a neighborhood man drove past us and honked at us, giving us a thumbs-up in appreciation for what we were doing, a reminder of the community down here and what it means to them to have guests down here helping out.
We went back to the hotel after lunch and got ready for our Tulane experience. First we took a tour of the beautiful campus and heard all about dorms, academics, extracurricular life, and more. Tulane has a wonderful campus; verdant and vast, with several large sculptures in the quad and lots of beautiful buildings. We stopped in a few of them and our tour guide Irene told us about her own experience at Tulane. After a midday snack/coffee break, the group went to Audobon Park, a 350-acre beautiful park literally across the street from Tulane. There we relaxed, enjoyed the views, and people had a chance to share with the group about fun facts, personal accomplishments from the week, and highlights.
From the park we went to Tulane’s Hillel, where we participated in their weekly Nosh and Learn, a short discussion with snacks that is prepared by a Tulane student each other. We discussed community and how we might be able to help our own communities (a topic which was obviously fresh in our teens’ minds!). Services followed, also student led, and then a delicious Israeli dinner of schnitzel, falafel, and baklava. The community was very welcoming, and it was a great way to celebrate Shabbat in New Orleans.
But the night wasn’t over there! After dinner, we headed back to Metairie a few miles down the road from our hotel for Family Gras. When we arrived we had some time to walk around the various booths and vendors before lining up for the end of the Krewe of Excalibur Parade. I can’t even describe the parade, so I took lots of pictures and video which you can take a look at here. I will say, though, that it was an amazing way to spend our last night; a great New Orleans celebration with music, beads, and a fun (but friendly) party atmosphere.
We wound down a bit once we got back to the hotel, sad in the knowledge that we’re leaving tomorrow, but delighted that the flight is late enough that we’ll get to sleep in. Let me take this opportunity to thank you again for sending us down to New Orleans with such a wonderful group of teens. The kindness, work ethic, and enthusiasm they have shown this week has helped make gross weather fun, hot days enjoyable, and this trip unforgettable. The other staff and I feel very lucky to do this work with this group.
The group is sad to leave each other (and the NOLA warmth!) but we’re feeling great about the work we’ve done this week.