Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fighting Against Jack-O-Lanterns

For the fourth year in a row, I have gone to rebuild New Orleans with a group of high school students.  It has been six years since Hurricane Katrina blew past New Orleans, six years since the devastation wrought by the flooding took place.  Each year brings a different experience, a different group of teens, a different perspective.  Yet each year has a stronger impact on me than the year before.

The first time I went was 2007.  Rabbi Andy Koren and I had been chatting that summer, and he brought up the idea that he wanted to bring a group of teens to clean up New Orleans.  He asked if I had any interest in a trip like that, and I responded resounding in the positive.  That was all we spoke of it until just after the school year started.  He called me and asked if I was still interested, because he needed a few more teens to make the trip viable.  If I could bring a few and he brought a few we could make it work together.  So we met in New Orleans that winter: 8 from Temple Sinai in Miami, FL, and 15 from Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.  That was the foundation on which we have tried to build each consecutive year, and this year was our best trip yet with the highest number of teens participating: 11 from Miami, 15 from Greensboro, and 5 from Roanoke, VA (their first time).

It is an exhausting whirlwind adventure for teens and chaperones alike. We go on a tour of New Orleans.  We visit Tulane University. We work in a soup kitchen. We build homes. We do environmental repair. We join Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie for Kabbalat Shabbat. We go to Rock and Bowl on Saturday night.  We come home physically exhausted and spiritually inspired.

This year our first day was touring and touring.  We met our tour guide Julie for burgers, then toured through the streets of New Orleans.  Those of us who were veterans on the trip (three of the adults, four of the kids) recognized the flood sites, levies, and pumping stations.  We remembered the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, so beautiful and calm, and the stories about how high the waters get on a windy day, not to mention during a hurricane of any magnitude.  We also noticed how clean and pretty the city looks on the surface.  There are new houses, new businesses, new street signs, and many of the lots are cleaned out and ready for sale.  The problem is under the surface.  The locals call it the “Jack-O-Lantern Effect.”  It looks shiny at first glance, then you notice the holes.

A deeper look under the surface reveals the hollow insides from Katrina’s wrath that have not yet been healed.  The 9th Ward has yet to have significant repair, save the homes Brad Pitt’s foundation “Make It Right,” and the tell-tale pastel painted homes built by Habitat for Humanity.  On the outside of broken-down buildings you can see spray-painted X’s with notes left by search crews numbering the survivors and bodies found after Katrina.  A large barn we saw was painted with the note, “We’ll be back. Do not tear down.” But 6 years later it looks like they’re still not back.  Other homes have been completely razed and the owners have simply walked away from their property and relocated.  Others still didn’t even bother with tearing down their destroyed homes.  They simply took whatever they could salvage from their flooded homes and walked away.  That’s the Jack-O-Lantern Effect.  New homes and rebuilding on the surface while the inside decays, just praying for groups of people to descend and make their mark toward healing the Big Easy.

Whenever I look at the overgrown or cleaned bare lots of the 9th Ward, I wonder how much it would really take to rebuild this amazing city.  So I asked our tour guide, who told us that with the dwindling of tour groups over the last 6 years, if we keep coming in the same numbers as right now, we will be finished with the rebuild by the year 2036. 

One other site always stirs my emotions, no matter how many times I have seen it.  Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue on Canal Blvd. in Lakeview…or what’s left of it.  The doors are sealed, the disrepair is visible from the outside, and the letters above the sealed entrance doors are barely legible.  They say, va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8).  The “them” referred to in the book of Exodus is the Israelites, and when we look at this sanctuary that was destroyed by an act of God, it begs the question: “Where was God dwelling during Hurricane Katrina?”  It is the answer to this question that makes me emotional.  You see, God was in the people of another congregation across the city.  Congregation Gates of Prayer, led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, one of the unsung heroes of the flood’s aftermath, opened its doors and hearts to Beth Israel.  This Reform congregation in Metairie invited their displaced brethren in, kashered their kitchen so it could be used by both communities, gave them a place to hold services, and even gave them a piece of land on which they would build their new building.  Rabbi Loewy has been a model of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and continues to be an exemplar of the Talmudic dictum, “all [Jews are] responsible for one another” (B. Shavuot 39a).  In the words of Rabbi Koren, “None of those lists of great rabbis are worth a thing until Rabbi Loewy tops them all.”

New Orleans is truly an amazing city.  The music is infectious, the food is incredible, and the people are the salt of the earth.  The Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico make for two gorgeous coasts, and even the swampy marshlands are beautiful and serene.  It’s hard to describe, but something about the Big Easy seeps into my soul and keeps me wanting to go back as soon as I leave.  After four years of running this trip, we have our habits and our favorite places to go.  Rabbi Koren and I are getting to know the area and some of the people.  We know the story of the weeks and months that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet something struck me this time that has never happened before.  Or perhaps the reverse of that is true—something did not happen that has happened I the past.

This year there was a palpable lack of locals thanking us for being there.  Of course people thanked us.  The organizations we worked with (The New Orleans Mission, Common Ground, and Habitat for Humanity) clearly appreciate the work we do.  But they are immersed in the effort to rebuild New Orleans.  They are reminded every day of how important it is to be there building, cleaning, planting, and feeding those in need. 

The difference came from the people at restaurants, on the street, and in the hotel who ask what we are doing with all these teens.  In the past when we have explained what we are doing there with all those kids, the response has been effusive gratitude.  “Thank you so much for coming here to help our city.” “New Orleans really appreciates your help.” “The work y’all are doing is so important to us.” The comments from the typical native helped to drive home to our teenagers exactly what they were doing.  They weren’t just there to buy trinkets and t-shirts or ogle the drunken revelers (from whom we keep them away).  They were there to do something incredibly important to every person they passed on the street, and just about every person made a point to stop and tell us.

This year they didn’t do that.  When people asked what our trip was for and I explained, “We’re here to help with the post-Katrina rebuilding effort,” one person (with a New Orleans accent) actually asked me why!  I told him there is still a lot of damage that needs to be repaired, and he cocked his head and said, “Well, have fun, y’all!”

The first time someone genuinely thanked us was Saturday night, and I was the only person who heard it.  I explained to a woman why we were here, and she thanked us and explained to me that she runs a hotel downtown.  I asked where she was in 2005, and she said she got out and went to a cousin in Alabama.  She shouted a little of her story to me over the Beatles’ music at Rock N’ Bowl, then she went to her friends and I went back to the teens.

Once again the Jack-O-Lantern Effect was in action.  So much of the surface has been cleaned up that people don’t remember how important it is to fix the damage that is still left over.  The travel groups have slowed down—maybe they are helping in other places in the world in need of attention, but New Orleans still needs us.  That’s why Rabbi Koren and I try to bring so many kids year after year.  If they are aware for just a moment of how important it is to look beneath the surface, they will continue to strive to rebuild the world, to do acts of Tikkun Olam in New Orleans, wherever they live, whatever cities need them.

You can’t spell Tikkun Olam without “NOLA,” and when NOLA gets rebuilt, the good times will surely roll again.

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