There was a tragic allegory at the heart of my trip to New Orleans last month. As most people are aware, in the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Hundreds of families were left without homes and received little to no compensation from the US government. It was a man-made tragedy; the immense damage to the city could have been prevented if the levees built by the army corps of engineers were properly suited to handle the storm. Many people felt abandoned by their God and their country. In short, they were devastated.
And so was I.
Last February, my friend Mitch Perlmeter unexpectedly passed away. I’ve known him since 2008, after we met at summer camp. The following fall, he entered my high school and my confirmation class at Temple Ner Tamid. Mitch was the kind of guy who was impossibly popular. Everyone that met him instantly fell in love with his infectious smile, laugh and down to earth personality. By the end of 2008, Mitch had made more friends in his three months at Montclair High than I had in fifteen years. That being said, I was never jealous or envious of his success, he was just too likeable. Mitch touched every aspect of my life, whether it be school, camp or temple, it seemed like every person I had ever met attended his funeral. I was experiencing devastation on a very large yet very personal scale.
Mitch was supposed to be a part of the Temple Ner Tamid’s senior class that went to New Orleans last month for Montclair High School’s senior option. Instead it was just four other teenagers, two chaperones and I.
We all loved Mitch and four months later, we still missed him and talked about him everyday. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, we spent most of our time in a neighborhood named Hollygrove and worked on two houses for families that lost their homes on the storm. It wasn’t easy work; in fact it was probably the most grueling physical work in the hottest environment you can imagine if you’re a short, thin eighteen year old that’s prone to sunburns. I personally worked on applying shingles to a roof, putting foundations together, sodding the front lawn and working on filling a giant hole in the backyard.
At the end of the last day with Habitat, we were able to hold a dedication ceremony to the family that would be receiving the second house. The family was comprised of a single mother and five children, one of which being a newborn. It was incredible to see the sheer joy in their faces as we presented the key to their new house, and in some ways, their new life. It’s totally cliché, but seeing these people with a new lease on life gave our group a new perspective on our own tragedy. For months, we had been struggling with what we had lost and found it difficult to put one foot in front of another. But after days and days of working on new homes for people that had experienced the greatest tragedy of all, we discovered that it was possible to rebuild ourselves. Corny, I know, but also true. It’s never easy and at times it can seem thankless but in the end, personal tragedies are not a handicap or an excuse to give up.
No matter how unfair things get, the human spirit is strong enough to weather any storm as long as it has a strong foundation built by friends, family and communities.
There are still many people in New Orleans that need help rebuilding their lives and homes. Please visit habitat.org for more information.