By Alissa Platcow, Temple Emeth member and student at UMass/Amherst
In college, we are flooded with choices, both simple, like where to eat, and more complicated, like what major we should pursue based on our career goals. When faced with the choice of how to spend my spring break, I was only sure of the fact that I did not want to be cooped up in my parents’ house all week. Being active in my Hillel community at UMASS, I decided to apply for the Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans. I had always understood the importance of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and giving, but somehow, I lacked a passion for it; I just thought participating in tikkun olam in New Orleans might be fun. Little did I know that this small choice would lead to not only a passion, but a bonfire, burning inside me.
We hopped out of the vans, ready and willing to meet the new day. The sun’s hot rays lit up our faces and arms, as we stood decked out in our bright yellow shirts with the NRN (National Relief Network) logo stamped on our backs. We began to unload the large bags of scrawny three-foot-tall baby pine trees. We would spend the next four days planting thousands of these tiny saplings, knowing that one day they would tower strong above our heads. Knee deep in mud, we were in the wetlands of Louisiana.
Throughout the trip, I learned that the wetlands of our nation are a critical aspect of the south shore. They serve as a natural bodyguard to the inhabitants of the cities and towns throughout the shore. In a hurricane, such as Katrina, a storm surge forms a powerful bulge of water that pushes the shoreline forward in front of the storm, obliterating everything in the hurricane’s path. A foot of storm surge is shaved off for every 2.7 square feet of wetlands with which it comes in contact. Unfortunately, in the 1950s the wetlands were impacted by engineers building levies and jetties, which dramatically diminished the wetlands before Hurricane Katrina even struck. Currently, the pollution of pesticide runoff, sewage and trash in general continue to minify the natural body guard of the south shore. If we do not come to the rescue of our wetlands now, a hurricane like Katrina could literally wash away all of New Orleans.
As each of us dug further into the mud, we slowly corrected the mistakes made by engineers and pollution. There is still much to be done. Although it has been six years since the storm, there is devastation throughout one of the greatest wetlands and cities in the world.
Back in Boston, as I strolled through the airport to meet my parents, the week that I spent in New Orleans flashed before my eyes. With every step, I felt more responsibility pile onto my shoulders. The obligation to continue to assist those in need rushed over me. Standing in the airport, I made the decision to go back to New Orleans every spring break for the remainder of my college career and to make community service an active aspect of my life. This trip made a permanent connection between tikkun olam and me. My experience is a direct example that no matter how small we are, we can make a difference, a difference in the environment, in the country, and in peoples’ lives. In four days, fifty students lifted shovels off the ground and planted a forest of 45,000 trees. Just imagine what we could do if each person in the world picked up a shovel. We all must choose to give.
Alissa Platcow serves on the board of Student Alliance for Israel and is Co-President of KOACH at UMass. This article was printed in Koach’s E-Zine.