By: Abbey Onn

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US in August 2005, 15 years ago this month. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, splitting my time between the beach and the mountains. The devastation that the storm wrought was immediately apparent. Even more apparent was the fact that the underlying causes were much deeper than any weather phenomenon. 

Taking action felt essential for me. I moved from LA to Washington D.C. to oversee a national organization’s relief efforts. I spent close to 12 months out of the next 36 on the ground in Mississippi and Louisiana. From the first time I landed in Mississippi to a landscape of blue tarps, I knew I was in the right place. Together with 3,000 students, we put roofs on homes that the storm tore off, gutted the insides of houses that had once housed families, and rebuilt new homes from the ground up.

In those months, I made endless mistakes and learned even more lessons. I made small mistakes, like not ordering enough food to feed hungry volunteers, and I made big mistakes, like not truly understanding what it means to partner with another organization and stand authentically in that partnership. The work was complex and required a host of skills I was just developing. 

Each night, I stood in front of hundreds as I connected the physical work we had done that day to the Jewish imperative to help. Feeling like an impostor was easy. I was 25 years old and had never done any of the things I was now in charge of, but I woke up every day with a clear purpose and motivation. Understanding leadership in the midst of a natural disaster felt superfluous. Rather, it was necessary to just lead. I didn’t spend my evenings considering the experiences that led me to that kind of work, what crucibles I had overcome or perhaps still carried with me, or even if I could course correct in the moment. 

In the years since that time, I have had the chance to uncover my story and to line up the facts of my life. I think about my mother who was arrested protesting the treatment of Soviet Jewry. I think of the swastikas that were spray painted on our car, with the instruction to join our ancestors. I think of the rural community I worked with in Nicaragua, whose lives looked so different from my own. My time in the Gulf Coast clarified my passion for creating experiential opportunities for young adults and because of those three years, I have a deep understanding of who I am as a leader, what drives me and how I use my experiences, challenges and successes to define how I lead.

In this next year, I vow to create the space for each of us to do a deep dive into our formative experiences, our crucibles, and our journeys at the same time that we learn, grow and ultimately turn the facts of our lives into our life story.

My challenge to all of us is to take a moment and reflect on what drives you.

What is your purpose? 

What do you wake up wanting to accomplish everyday?