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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

Reflections on the Leadership Mission to New Orleans

By Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El, San Antonio, TX
"All Jews are responsible for one another." This fundamental teaching of our faith took Temple Beth-El Past President Harry Levy and me to New Orleans, on a Mission organized by our Union for Reform Judaism. Forty-eight hours in New Orleans reminded me that all Americans, indeed all God's children, are responsible for one another. We, the American people, are not living up to our sacred obligation.

The Union for Reform Judaism, unlike government at all levels, acted quickly after the levees broke and Katrina’s waters drowned much of New Orleans. Millions of dollars were raised. Half was committed to our New Orleans area synagogues. The other half has been directed to relief for the neediest and most vulnerable Katrina victims.

“You are my witness, says the Eternal God, and My servants, whom I have chosen.”

The mere presence of some thirty “missionaries,” from as far away as Seattle and New York, made a great emotional impact on the folks we visited. They were touched that we had come for no reason but to see the devastation ourselves, to find out how we could be of greater assistance, and to be able to share what we would see.

New Orleans Reform Jews proclaimed that they feel sheltered by a tabernacle of love, spread over them by their co-religionists. At the same time, the communities of south Louisiana feel abandoned by the United States of America.

“You are my witnesses…”

We missionaries visited the most devastated areas, from mansions lining golf courses to impoverished neighborhoods. Our most striking report: The destruction in unimaginably vast. We saw miles upon miles of deserted homes and streets, empty shopping malls and shuttered restaurants, many in shambles and all decaying. Imagine driving on 410, from Eisenhauer to Vance-Jackson, and seeing nothing but empty parking lots and blighted buildings. Walking on a residential lane, we saw homes, empty and waiting, for what they know not.

“You are my witnesses…”

We sat around tables with a dozen or so African American ministers, pastors blessed with neither Church nor flock. Their communities desperately want to reassemble. These pastors shed blood, sweat, and tears, for no pay, tearing molded sheetrock and water-damaged pews out of Houses of God that may never be rebuilt.

“You are my witnesses…”

The citizenry suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or is still enduring trauma. The mentally ill wander the streets, talking to themselves. Not one inpatient psychiatric bed has opened in the city.

The most profound problem, though, is housing. Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents who want to come home cannot. They have no place to lay their heads at night. As a result, workers are not available to rebuild homes or open businesses. Only the federal government has the ability to address this crushing problem. We were repeatedly urged: “Send your member of Congress to see what you have seen.”

Folks in New Orleans today have one overriding fear: Hurricane Season 2006. They ask, “Will the levees be repaired to protect our homes? Will it happen again?”

“You are my witnesses…”

We saw a city that was not destroyed by a hurricane, by a so-called “act of God.” Instead, the devastation was caused by the United States of America. Levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers did not protect the city they were there to defend. We are all responsible.

“…and my servants whom I have chosen.” We, the American people, have a sacred obligation to rebuild New Orleans.

Let our members of Congress visit New Orleans, to witness the devastation in its gruesome enormity, and let them return to Washington, to work with the President to deliver the billions required to bring life back to a moribund American city.

We, the people of these United States, owe a great debt to New Orleans and the surrounding area, as former Mayor and HUD Secretary “Moon” Landrieu reminded our group. Only because of the value of New Orleans did President Jefferson buy the Louisiana Purchase, leading to the great expansion of our nation. The War of 1812, threatening America’s independence, was won at the Battle of New Orleans. The Crescent City provides much of our nation’s oil and gas, is one of our largest ports, and is a cultural gem. America needs New Orleans, even as the people of that city need the American people to serve God by rebuilding New Orleans.

“You are my witness…” The people we met in New Orleans demonstrate a great faith in their city’s future. They believe that a better day will come. Like Moses’ own faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, they do not deny the gigantic problems they face. In the words of the biblical lament for Jerusalem after the Babylonian destruction, “The city lies desolate.” And yet, as Rabbi David Lyon, observed, today’s New Orleans residents hold on to hope. They need God’s help.

Before we left the gathering of African American pastors, our host led us in non-sectarian prayer. Together, Baptists and Jews prayed for Divine intervention, asking the Lord to move hearts to serve God by bringing life back to New Orleans.

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