CHAIRS REMARKS TO EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE SEPTEMBER 12, 2005
The levees broke and with them many of our illusions broke too.
Illusions about our security and safety, illusions about governments ability to perform when cronyism is valued over competence, political support over skills, experience and training. Katrina held up a mirror to American life and we did not like what we saw.
The images on our TV screens, on the internet and in our newspapers exploded in our consciousness and our conscience. They gave us living, breathing evidence of what our national tax and budget policies mean. We saw downtrodden, hungry refugees pleading for help not in Darfur or Iraq or Indonesia but in America. It is no longer possible to treat as an abstraction the notion that we are abandoning the least among us the elderly, the infirm, the poor, primarily people of color.
In the squalor of the Superdome, the crimes and brutality of the Convention Center, the deaths in hospitals and nursing homes, we saw what it means to literally leave the elderly, infirm and the poor behind. We saw the ingrained racism that leads the media to caption virtually identical pictures of people wading through the flood waters with goods needed for survival bread, diapers differently depending on the persons race. The whites were obtaining supplies. The blacks were looting.
Now we know what happens when a society values spin over truth, sound bites over content, shine over substance. Now we know the outcome when we let empty rhetoric about homeland security substitute for the real investment needed to create a secure homeland; when we let pieties about family values substitute for policies that value families.
We saw too that what we think are deeply embedded civilized norms may actually be a rather thin veneer. Strip it away and violence and lawlessness are rampant.
How important is the rule of law to our civilization? Without it, we learned, the descent into chaos, into hell, is chillingly, horrifyingly, swift. Katrina, like 9/11, was a shock to our system. We saw massive government failures. We saw a world out of control. I pray that this time we learn the lesson.
And yet, like 9/11, Katrina also brought out the best in many people and institutions. The first responders who stayed on the job for days on end despite their own losses. The millions of people who opened their homes, wallets and their hearts to the victims. The governments around the world who offered help. The institutions that moved quickly to provide food, clothing, shelter, health services.
As much as any of them, the Union has responded to the challenge with extraordinary creativity, skill and vigor. On 9/11, the Union responded virtually instantaneously with rituals, practical advice, curricular materials, security bulletins from Synagogue Management and a major fund that we used to support the work of several agencies providing direct services. The response to Katrina has been similar. Our congregations and their members in Baton Rouge, Houston, Jackson, Mississippi, and many other places have opened their doors, their homes and their hearts to victims. Thousands of our congregants across North American have donated to our disaster relief fund, which as of yesterday had received over $1.25 million from over 8,100 donors. I am sure both numbers are higher today.
Last week, we distributed $230,000 from the fund to agencies providing direct services to victims, another $25,000 to our two congregations in Baton Rouge, Bnai Israel and Beth Shalom, and to Beth Israel in Jackson, Mississippi and Gemiluh Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana. Rabbi David Saperstein delivered the Baton Rouge checks and Rabbi Danny Friedlander went to Jackson. We have also given $10,000 to the Katrina Relief Fund of the Jewish Federation of Baton Rouge.
The $230,000 in general relief allocations include:
American Friends Service Committee $30,000 Direct Relief International $30,000 International Medical Corps. $30,000 Mercy Corps. $30,000 Oxfam America $30,000 Americas Second Harvest/The Nations Food Bank Network $30,000 Enterprise Corporation of the Delta $30,000 Baton Rouge Area Foundation $20,000
For a description of what these agencies are doing and up to date information about all our grants, go to our website: www.urj.org/relief. [As of today, total grants exceed $500,000 and contributions are in excess of $2 million from some 10,000 donors.]
To make recommendations to Eric and me concerning allocating additional funds to our congregations, I have appointed a Relief Fund Allocations Task Force, chaired by Russell Silverman and including:
Neil Cooper (NY/Congregation Emanu-El) Mark Halperin (Memphis/Temple Israel) David Lynn (Dallas/Temple Shalom) Malcolm Milsten (Tulsa/Temple Israel) Shirley Toomim (Houston/Congregation Beth Israel)
Jerry Bass, Diane Michael and David Strauss, the affected Regional/Federation Presidents, will serve as advisers to this group. Eric has designated Rabbi Deborah Hirsch as the primary staff.
The Commission on Social Action will continue to be responsible for recommendations as to general relief allocations.Our Jacobs Ladder project, about which you will hear more in a moment, is a hands-on project delivering essential goods to the Jackson, Mississippi community, which ahs seen its population below the poverty line, already large, grow dramatically as refugees arrive from New Orleans and the Delta. Jacobs Ladder seems to have struck a chord with out people who are eager to do something with their hands in addition to writing generous checks. I read the other day that 10% of life is what happens to you and 90% is how you react to what happens. We should be very proud of how the Union, our congregations and their members are reacting to this crisis. To tell you more, we have Rabbis Marla Feldman and Deborah Hirsch who have been in the forefront of t