Well before I ever thought I would end up in Boston, one of the many things I admired about our Jewish community was how we responded to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When the national Jewish community raised tens of millions of dollars to rebuild Jewish institutions on the Gulf Coast, Boston was among the first to ask the question: “How can we do more than just help other Jews? What can we do to support the recovery for all people?”
CJP responded by joining two other Jewish federations to fund Jewish Funds for Justice (where I then worked), to build an interfaith partnership for economic and housing recovery in New Orleans. JCRC reached out to us and others for guidance in engaging Jewish volunteers in service in the Gulf to help rebuild homes and restore hope to hurricane survivors – of all backgrounds – in most need.
So you understand that I am proud to tell you that – 11 years after Katrina – during school vacation last week, JCRC took 17 teens from 8 different synagogue communities in Boston to New Orleans. Over five days, our teens provided 570 total hours of service in partnership with the St. Bernard Project, an organization that emerged from the flood waters of Katrina to help rebuild St. Bernard Parish – which was 100% flooded.
One of the sites they worked at was the home of Ms. Janice in Violet, LA, where they helped return her house to move-in condition.
Katrina left Ms. Janice and her husband with only the brick exterior of their home salvageable. Their house was rebuilt with the assistance of insurance and volunteer help. But – as in far too many cases - this wasn't the end of their challenges. When they moved home they become sick. Like so many others, they learned that that the new wallboard in their home contained defective and potentially carcinogenic materials.
They, along with thousands of other families in the New Orleans area, suffered a double disaster requiring them to again move out while the defective wallboard was removed. The home was virtually gutted again and they sought the assistance of St. Bernard Project to help them with their second rebuild.
Our teens caulked, primed, painted and cleaned – readying the house for the family to move back in.
Ms. Janice is now divorced – a circumstance not uncommon due to post-Katrina stresses. She works two jobs just to be able to survive and she was unable to get time off to come over and thank the JCRC team in person. But our teens found their work deeply fulfilling nonetheless, knowing they had supported this family in reclaiming their home.
This trip builds on work we do throughout the year here in Boston though our TELEM initiative, and on the work our teens have done on recent trips to New York where we’ve been helping with Hurricane Sandy recovery.
Locally and beyond, a decade ago and now, our work is guided by a core question: What are the values that we, the Boston Jewish community, want to act on in the broader society that we live in?
We at JCRC continue to answer that question through service. In Boston, in New York, and in New Orleans - through acts of volunteerism - we enrich our young people as they formulate their value system. When the waters first flowed into New Orleans we rightly asked ourselves “How can we be only for ourselves?” Through service we transmit a Jewish principle that has endured over two millennia since the days of the great rabbi, Hillel, who asked: “If I am only for myself, who am I?”
"Sometimes, as you know, the kids get caught in the ‘bubble’ and really don't see how other people live,” said the mother of one of the teen volunteers. “We are fortunate to have our kids grow up in this environment, yet look for those experiences that bring them back to the ‘real world’ and this trip really did just that.”
And when we break out of that bubble, when we pick ourselves up and serve others, we learn something even more powerful than knowing that we are blessed. As Rafi Barglow, age 15, of Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester put it: "I was surprised at how enjoyable it was to work on houses. It wasn't just doing repetitive tasks, it had the power to change lives."
We have the power within ourselves to help others. At JCRC, we’re acting on that power every day, in 2005, in 2016, and with the continued help of our community, in the years to come.