This week I was in New Orleans for a few days. I was a member of a small mission of Conservative rabbis who wanted to see how we could help.
Before I went, I knew what we all know, that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with a great impact, that the man-made protections against flooding were inadequate, that people died, that people lost their homes, that many people fled New Orleans and will never go back. I didn’t really focus on the Jewish connection, on what had happened to the Jewish community of New Orleans. I didn’t really think that I could help by going, but I wanted to try, in some small way, to do something.
I have many things that I’d like to tell you about my trip. I’m just going to mention a few of them.
Picture this: a group of rabbis, wearing yarmulkas, walking into an all-black high school, talking to kids, each of whom had a story about how his or her life was completely disrupted by the hurricane. They told us that many high school age kids they knew were now no longer going to school at all, that a year and a half later there is chaos and disorganization in the school system, with thousands and thousands of kids unaccounted for. Some of us emptied a classroom filled with old junky desks and chairs, so that the classroom could be used again as a classroom. At another point I just threw stuff away. A year and a half later, the school was full of old papers and garbage.
At the end of the day, I said to the supervisor that we’d hardly made a dent. He disagreed. He said that what we had accomplished put him a month ahead of where he’d been. And when I said to the rabbi of the Conservative shul that we didn’t really do much by coming down, he disagreed. He said that they all feel alone and isolated, like America doesn’t care. He said that the symbolic value of rabbis coming from Texas and Connecticut and New York and New Jersey was huge.
This rabbi, Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld, had just come to New Orleans a month before the hurricane. Before he even got to know his congregation, his congregation had literally left town. His wife was pregnant, the shul was flooded, and his congregation wasn’t there. If he would have resigned and looked for a new position, no one would have criticized him. But he stayed, and of the 401 families, 273 came back to New Orleans. But it has been very, very hard. On TV you see the devastation that ruined the 9th Ward, a poor African-American area. In person, that area is so ruined that I got sick and depressed. I took pictures just so that I could convince myself I’d really seen what I saw.
There was a house in the middle of the street. A year and a half later there was a house in the middle of a street.
You see that kind of thing on TV. What you never see on TV is what happened to some of the other areas. A lot of people have been ruined financially. They still haven’t received money from their insurance company and they haven’t been able to rebuild. That’s why so many have left; they don’t have a place to live.
On the Rosh Hashanah right after Katrina, I said that human beings were as much to blame as the hurricane. Now that I’ve been there, I know that I was even more correct than I knew.
When you see the protection that they had against flooding, you can’t believe how low and flimsy and breakable it is. We met with some government officials, who explained that while everyone blames President Bush, the fact is that the U.S. government has sent the billions they need, but that the money is stuck at the state level and is not being dispensed. After the meeting, I talked with the Secretary of State of Louisiana. I asked him one question: If there would be another hurricane, level 3 or higher, what would happen? He said, “We’ll be dead.” So I said, “Why isn’t this your first and highest priority? Before you do anything else, why don’t you make sure that the barriers won’t break next time?” And he said, “Because it’s so expensive.” And I said, “But even thinking in terms of money, no matter how much it costs, it will cost less than the cost of fixing and rebuilding more ruin.” And he said, “People are not willing to spend the money.” And so, knowing the answer, I asked him about the numbers I’d seen on the doors of ruined houses. He explained that the numbers indicated the unit of the National Guard that had checked the house, and that the bottom number indicated how many people died at that house. I asked, “How much is a life worth?”
So here are two of the things I want to say to you from my experience in New Orleans. First, you can help sometimes, more than you think you can, just be showing up, just by showing that you care. You can make a difference when you put yourself in the right situation.
Second, before you do anything else in life, take care of yourself, protect yourself, make sure that you and your loved ones are safe. Before you do anything else, try to guard against disasters.
Hurricanes will come in life. But human beings who believe in G-d can do a lot to limit the damage that will be done.
In the Torah reading for last week, we saw how the Israelites walked through the raging sea, how the waters parted and they walked through on dry ground. They had faith and they had courage.
The people who have stayed in New Orleans have faith and courage. And they deserve our help.
So let me finish by saying something weird. I am becoming a member of another shul. I am joining a shul called Sher Hadash, which means “a new song” in Metarra, Louisiana. It will cost me $100 a year. But, I figure that those of who live in peace and safety should help those who don’t. This is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, and I’m joining a shul called “A New Song,” hoping and praying that they will find the wisdom to make the changes they need to make so that this community will not only survive and thrive, that they will walk through the sea on dry ground.
P.S. Many people have asked me for a way to join the Chaverim, corresponding members of Shir Hadash. Attached is an application form if you would like to help in this way.