This summer, as Gina Weintraub prepared to begin her final semester of graduate school in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans, she couldn’t have possibly imagined that less than two weeks later, she would be living and studying Hebrew in the Israeli city of Beersheba.
But Hurricane Katrina, which changed and disrupted so many lives, ended up blowing her into the heart of the Negev. She and at least one other student – more may follow – have taken advantage of an across the board offer made by five Israeli universities in cooperation with the Jewish Agency – providing scholarships to their English overseas programs and housing to any student whose education was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina.
“This is first and foremost an initiative which stems from the comradeship and shared destiny between the citizens of Israel and the citizens of the US,” said the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Zeev Bielski.
“In addition to the academic gain, we are sure that the time spent in Israel will afford these students a meaningful experience for the rest of their lives and they will quickly become the best ambassadors for the State of Israel in the world.”
The Israeli academic semester only begins in late October after the Jewish High Holidays, so it is still unclear exactly how many New Orleans area students will end up in Israel.
“It’s still an evolving situation,” said Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. “We welcome all that want to come.”
For Weintraub, 28, the natural disaster of Katrina turned into an opportunity to revive an old dream of studying in Israel. She had been living and studying in New Orleans over the summer, but was visiting friends in Seattle when the hurricane hit.
“I really wish I’d packed more for my trip to Seattle,” she laughs. “All of my things are still in New Orleans – as far as I’ve heard, they are OK.”
When the hurricane struck New Orleans, she flew from Seattle to New York to her family – then to her boyfriend in Minnesota, and decided to drive with him to his university in Austin, Texas.
In Austin, she spent several days volunteering at the convention center, helping other Katrina refugees go through what she described as a “traumatic experience.”
During her travels, she got a phone call from a friend.
“She had seen a sign in her synagogue about the offer to those affected by the hurricane to study in Israel. And it just clicked in my brain that this was what I needed to do,” Weintraub told ISRAEL21c.
“When I first started my graduate program, I had just come back from my birthright trip, and I had planned to investigate the possibility of studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but after a month or so, I started really getting involved in my life in New Orleans and Israel wasn’t in my mind anymore.”
But her new circumstances changed her mind. Instead of staying with her boyfriend in Austin and attending the University of Texas, like several of her classmates, she decided to seize the opportunity and head for Israel.
Why the Negev? “Some places just speak to you, it’s hard to explain. I can be here and just be walking down the street and I can’t breath. I love it so much – the physical, mental, spiritual experience.”
Weintraub is currently focused on improving her Hebrew this semester, so that by next semester, she can do the coursework to complete her degree. In addition, she plans to study Israeli politics and ancient Israel – and begin the internship component as well as the independent study work associated with her master’s program.
When the disaster struck in New Orleans, the Jewish Agency saw it as an opportunity to bring students of any religious denomination to Israel who might not consider the option otherwise. In some cases, the universities are fully funding the tuition – where they are not, the Agency is making up the difference, as well as providing a $2,000 grant for their airline tickets and initial costs of getting settled.
The project was undertaken in cooperation with Hillel – The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the United Jewish Communities (UJC) – The Federations of North America.
As Weintraub arrived in Beersheba, 19-year-old Sasha Parsons Solomon of Orinda, California was already getting settled in the dormitories of the University of Haifa.
A college sophomore, Solomon had been attending university in San Francisco and had applied to transfer to Loyola University in New Orleans; she only found out in August that she was accepted there.
Full of anticipation for her life in a new city, the biology major quickly packed her bags and arrived in the dormitory in New Orleans – four days before the hurricane hit.
“The morning before the hurricane began, we were evacuated from the dorms, and we were taken to Baton Rouge where we were going to a shelter,” Parsons told ISRAEL21c.
She, too, was forced to leave her belongings in New Orleans. On the way out of the city, a friend from back home in California called with good news – she had family in Baton Rouge who offered to take Parsons in. Spared the experience of living in a shelter, she weathered the hurricane with her friend’s family along with other refugees.
“I didn’t know they would be so welcoming, they were all really nice,” she said.
After the hurricane had blown through Baton Rouge, she flew home to San Francisco to consider her options. She was weighing various alternatives – going to her old school, traveling to Europe – when she received an email from her Hillel organization in New Orleans.
Like Weintraub, she had had a positive experience visiting Israel on a birthright trip – and decided to take the Jewish Agency’s offer and turn her misfortune into a new adventure in Israel.
It wasn’t a completely easy decision. Coming to Israel means that she cannot focus on her major at the moment because of the language barrier. She is taking courses in the overseas program, one class in her field, and hopes to do an internship.
Despite the complication in her studies, “I know I could never regret coming.”
She chose Haifa because she had relatives there – whom she utterly surprised when she called them told them that she’d be in Israeli in four days. Her cousin came to pick her up at the airport.
After so much disruption in her life, she is looking forward to beginning her studies – after spending the Jewish High Holidays with her Israeli family.
“So far, everyone’s been really nice and helpful,” she reported. “It still hasn’t quite hit me that I am here. It didn’t really hit me that I was in New Orleans! I know that soon I’ll settle in, I’m really glad I’m here, I have friends who are planning to come to on birthright and will extend their stay we will travel together.”
Katie Rosenbloom, 21, who had expected to begin her junior year at Tulane – but instead, will leave soon for Tel Aviv University – told the New York Jewish Week that she saw the disruption in her plans as “an opportunity of a lifetime. I’m going to experience life in a totally different way and grow in the process.
Rosenbloom’s mother Carol, was happily surprised at how quickly and smoothly the process of getting Katie accepted and the arrangements for her studies had been.
“Everything is working out so perfectly. If Katie had written a script for her life, it couldn’t have been better,” she told the Jewish Week. “I’m only sorry that she’s in Israel due to such a catastrophe.”