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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

A Jacobs' Ladder Diary

...My experience today affirms that the fallout from the disaster is both current and local. Tiny towns like Utica, previous to Katrina with a population of 900, have suddenly burgeoned to 1500-2000 people. There are communities all over Mississippi and Louisiana who have already begun to be forgotten, sad to say...

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the Rabbi of Beth Haverim in Mahwah, NJ. He is currently volunteering at Jacobs' Ladder. He shares his Jacobs' Ladder diary with us:

Day 1


Today was my first full day volunteering at Jacobs' Ladder in Mississippi, and the work is intense but rewarding. The incoming trucks, loaded so diligently by congregations all over the country, continue to be unloaded daily with much appreciation. The truth is that the material so generously provided by so many will have been cleared through the warehouse by week's end on its way locally to communities here in Utica and Jackson, and as far and wide as Gulfport, Biloxi, and Natchez.

Today was "Utica Day" at the warehouse, where folks who have taken in evacuees to this area (some 125 miles north of New Orleans) were able to come and get supplies for their expanded households. Some of the largest relief centers in this immediate area are closing this week, either out of a sense that "the disaster has past," or from a feeling that "the real disaster is further to the south." My experience today affirms that the fallout from the disaster is both current and local. Tiny towns like Utica, previous to Katrina with a population of 900, have suddenly burgeoned to 1500-2000 people. There are communities all over Mississippi and Louisiana who have already begun to be forgotten, sad to say.

Jacobs' Ladder and the Union for Reform Judaism have proudly not forgotten. Initially, when the distribution center was set up here at URJ-Jacobs Camp, no one knew who needed what materials. Staff members from Jacobs' Ladder would call around to smaller relief centers and shelters, and the response was often alternately "we don't know what we need," or "others are helping us." Today, four weeks on, the answer is always, "yes, please. Send whatever you can. The wells of kindness seem to be drying up." Tomorrow, alone, four trucks will depart our warehouse for far-flung locations, filled with diapers, food, toiletries, linens, and more. And that's only because we have no more trucks at our disposal. Also interesting is how the needs are already evolving. Last week, "cleaning supplies" were turned away at least one of the URJ trucks I visited because the sense was that they were not in immediate need. Now, though, as people begin to go back to their homes (for the lucky ones who have homes to go back to), they need mold remover and cleansers of every sort. "Don't give me water," one man said to me. "Water, we've got. Do you have any Lysol?" And in a 20,000 square-foot warehouse jammed with the basics, there is not a bottle of Lysol or Windex to be found. We are told that some is on the way... The needs are not going to go away any time soon; they'll simply evolve.

Among many other desperate people I met today was Eva Green, mother of three. She and her husband and kids lost everything to Katrina, and they're here in Utica staying with distant relatives. We were able to provide diapers (the same size my son Lev wears...), food, bedding, and hygiene items that will help them get through the next week or so, as they begin to imagine what their "new normal" will be.

So, too, tomorrow, we are expecting 3-4 semi-trailers to arrive filled with shipments to be unloaded, sorted, and sent out. These efforts are estimated to continue for four more weeks, as congregations all over the United States hold High Holiday appeals for more supplies.

The camp director, Jonathan Cohen, and his wife, Rabbi Valerie Cohen, are among my new heroes. Jonathan is hugely responsible for creating Jacobs' Ladder, and Valerie diligently serves her congregation in Jackson, which has expanded by 50 families or more of Jewish evacuees from New Orleans. All this as they also host an evacuee family in their home.

Also amazing is an eighteen year-old guy from Florida named Andrew, who moved into his dorm room at Tulane for his freshman year, only to be evacuated less than two hours later in advance of Katrina. Rather than find a place to go to school elsewhere for the semester, Andrew has dedicated this time to service, first with Second Harvest in Biloxi, and now at Jacobs' Ladder.

Wow, what a first day. Tomorrow, I hope to be on a truck headed out into the field, to see for myself what nature has wrought...

Pray for the strength of our fellow Americans, and please work to make a difference that the economic disparities in our society never leave them so vulnerable again...---

Day 2

It all started with broken trees, and ended with a stairway to nowhere...

More than 150 miles from the coast on our drive down to Biloxi with supplies, there were downed trees everywhere. As we passed Hattiesburg, metal road signs were twisted like pretzels, and more and more homes and businesses had blue tarps covering what was left of their roofs. By the time we got to Biloxi, the damage was indeed as devastating as we'd seen on television, although the television cannot truly do it justice.

The church we made a drop at had itself been hit with six feet of water; they had so few supplies that they were only able to open once a week. The food we supplied them will allow them to open an extra day this week. Two blocks away and all around the church, the destruction was indescribable. We stood on the remains of the Biloxi Bridge, which looked straight out of earthquake footage, with parts of the roadway pancaked on top of each other. The homes along the shore in the extremely wealthy neighborhood were almost all obliterated. In most cases, there was nothing left but concrete slabs and swimming pools. In one case, we saw a stairway to a second floor. The stairway was literally all that was left of the home.

Day 3

This morning was an exhausting one in the warehouse; we unloaded and sorted two 53-foot trucks loaded with supplies from congregations. Another congregation had sent $18,000 in Wal-mart gift cards. That juxtaposition of trucks and gift cards gave new meaning to the old saying, "good things come in small packages..."

This afternoon, we drove to Columbia, Mississippi, where we brought two fully loaded rental trucks of supplies to a Baptist church. I think they must have thought we were bring two pick-ups worth of stuff-- they were shocked when we unloaded two huge U-Hauls of supplies.

The poverty in this part of the country is even more devastating to me than the hurricane damage itself. I keep wondering-- not "how can we have a hurricane like this in America," but rather, "how can we stand to allow our fellow Americans to live in such abject conditions?" The supplies we brought to Columbia today will help some hurricane refugees, yes, but it will also help people who, frankly, were living on the knife's edge of poverty before the hurricane hit, and unless we as a country wake up, they'll be right back there when the relief trucks stop rolling...

The work is rewarding and uplifting, but everywhere we go, I'm learning about how much more there is to do. And I wonder: how many people live in Bergen County in much the same way? And we don't see their stories on CNN or Fox... does that mean they don't exist?

More tomorrow.

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