By Rabbi David Lyon Just before Passover, I participated in a leadership mission to New Orleans, organized by the URJ. The goals for the mission were clear: to view the devastation of New Orleans first hand and meet with community leaders to gain an understanding of their needs; to visit Reform congregations and meet with their leadership to learn about their specific needs and concerns; to learn about the Reform movement's relief projects in the area; and to consider ways to continue supporting the New Orleans community.
All the goals of the mission were met through on-site visits throughout the city, including Mandeville and Sidell to the north. We met with the president of Tulane University, the mayor of Slidell, a past mayor of New Orleans, local leaders of redevelopment efforts, and local Reform Rabbis and their Temple leadership. Their words echoed similar experiences and their messages expressed unbelievable hope. Their courage and perseverance were models of human resiliency.
There are no words to describe the contrast between the relative normalcy of the French Quarter and Garden District and the devastation of eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, the Lower 9th Ward, and areas such as Lakeview. To those who live there they still see the bustling highways, neighborhoods, schools, and local businesses. They see what we cannot see. They have memories that no storm or broken levee can ever erase. They also have visions of what must surely still be possible for them in places they have always called home.
By way of an analogy, I felt that our group was like the spies who toured the Promised Land and reported what they found to the Israelites who waited for them. If you remember, all but two returned to report that "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them."Only Joshua and Caleb gave an encouraging report that more accurately described the conditions the Israelites would find there when they entered the Land. They were honored for their courage to have faith in God's plan for them, and to find the words the people needed to hear to fulfill their vision for life in a new Land. When Joshua was given some of Moses' authority to lead the people forward, he was told, "Be strong and of good courage."
In our group, all of us left with similar experiences. We were stunned by what we saw, but we shared the same goal to return home and tell you that many challenges there can be overcome. Even where life cannot be restored completely, great respect must be paid to the people who were displaced and whose lives were overturned forever. Our own humanity is measured in the ways we care for those who are hurting. Our wealth is reflected not only in our resources, but in the safety and security that is found in our sense of normalcy and our freedom to plan for the future.
New Orleans may not be flowing with milk and honey, but it is a major port that will be flowing with oil, gas and many other goods. According to city leaders, New Orleans will need nearly ten years to become whole again, perhaps smaller, but stronger and better able to support the needs of its citizens. We can help. Our Katrina Relief Committee will be activated again to help the children of New Orleans prepare for summer and for a new school year in the fall. I am asking you to be ready to respond when the call goes out for specific ways to help. In the meantime, your letters and phone calls to leaders in government will help us end the strangle-hold of red tape that is currently restricting the flow of federal and state aid.
Human resiliency is part of the human spirit that feeds our hope. Together, we will keep New Orleans and its citizens in our prayers as we ask God to bless them and protect them, to fulfill all that they wish for themselves and to grant them peace, once more, for them and their families. Let us be the first to say, "Be strong and of good courage."