A year ago, an alternative spring-break trip afforded University of Pennsylvania student Sam Adelsberg the opportunity to witness firsthand the many, still-difficult, even grim realities of life in post-Katrina New Orleans, an experience that both haunted him and fermented a desire to return to the Crescent City and do more.
At the same time, the Brooklyn-born Modern Orthodox student had been working to improve ties between Penn's sizable Jewish and Muslim communities, and was developing a friendship with Samir Malik, a former president of the campus' Muslim Students Association.
The two came up with an idea: Send a group of Jewish and Muslim students from Penn to New Orleans to help in the ongoing rebuilding efforts. They got both Hillel and the MSA to sign on.
On March 12, a group of 22 students -- 11 Jews and 11 Muslims -- returned from the Big Easy after a six-day trip sponsored by Penn's Fox Leadership Program. All in all, Penn sent 100 students, representing groups including the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Newman Center and the School of Design, though the Jewish-Muslim trip was largely an independent project.
"You can't expect 25 students to rebuild an entire city in six days. But you can demonstrate your commitment and use community service to hit on the fundamental service element of both religions," said Malik, 22, a management and neuroscience major originally from St. Louis. A first-generation American, he is the child of Pakistani immigrants.
Through the auspices of an organization called ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the students spent several days volunteering in the Lower 9th Ward, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In addition to the volunteer efforts, the trip was also about interfaith exploration and dialogue, and included intense and at times heated dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Hillel rabbi, a university chaplain and a Muslim professor chaperoned the trip and led the discussions.