Orinda student washed out of New Orleans and onto the shores of Haifa

Sasha Solomon loved New Orleans. All four days of it.

That’s how long the Loyola University sophomore had to enjoy the Big Easy before Hurricane Katrina flooded out her school and washed away her academic plans.

But the plucky 19-year-old biology major from Orinda found an unlikely rescuer: the state of Israel, which offered to take her in and enroll her in a new school tuition-free.

Solomon is now the newest foreign-exchange student at the University of Haifa. She will study there for the rest of the academic year.

The suddenness of the change still has her reeling. Only two days before the hurricane hit, Solomon was just settling into Loyola campus life in New Orleans. As the gravity of the impending storm became clear, she was evacuated with the rest of the student body to Baton Rouge.

“It took seven hours to go 70 miles,” she recalls of the drive north. “It was hot. There was no air conditioning. I was in a van with 15 girls doing nothing but complaining.”

The next day, Katrina vented her fury, knocking out power and downing trees all across Baton Rouge. Solomon stayed with family friends in the Louisiana capital for a few days before flying back to the Bay Area. “I didn’t have a chance to feel overwhelmed,” she says. “It all happened so fast.”

Her initial plan was to attend school in Italy (she speaks the language), but she then learned through Hillel that some colleges in Israel were accepting Jewish victims of Katrina.

“I figured, ‘OK, let’s look into this. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I gave up a free year in Israel. I thought Haifa would be nice. Not as traditional as Jerusalem, not as crazy as Tel Aviv.”

Solomon first visited Israel last January on a Birthright trip. She loved the country and hoped someday to have an internship there. But her timeline ended up shifting with the hurricane-force winds.

“Everyone here is very nice and very helpful,” Solomon says shortly after her arrival in late September. “My Hebrew is horrid. I can say ‘How are you?’ and ‘What time is it?'”

Growing up in Orinda, Solomon had her bat mitzvah at Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah. She graduated from Miramonte High School in Orinda before spending her freshman year at San Francisco State University.

As grateful as she is to Israel for helping her, Solomon doesn’t expect to stay in the country beyond the current school year. In fact, she’s already applying to Wellesley College near Boston, where her sister is enrolled.

Meanwhile, she intends to live it up, Israeli-style. “I can see the Mediterranean from my room,” she says. “They have ferries in Haifa that take you to Greece or Istanbul. I am so gonna do that.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.