Michael's Missives

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bearing Witness: Reflections on Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans and the holiday of Passover

I spent part of the Shabbat before Passover inside a big tent in Kiln, Mississippi, near the Louisiana border.

I was surrounded by a group of (mostly) Jews, and (some) non-Jews as well, celebrating an amazing Shabbat at Camp Coastal, a site for volunteers that sprang up next to a highway, shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Amid pews that had been salvaged from churches destroyed by the hurricane, in what I imagined an old-fashioned revival might have felt like, our group gathered to pray and sing and dance and reflect upon our work that week (and what it meant for us to rest from that work).

I had spent the previous week staffing an Alternative Spring Break organized by Hillel’s Schusterman International Center, with nine wonderful undergraduates from Harvard and about 80 others from campuses throughout the country. The timing of this spring break came at a moment in the Jewish calendar when we were on the verge of Passover, and I was struck by connections between the work we were doing, the stories we were hearing, and the upcoming holiday.

I’d like to share three of these connections with you today, on this Shabbat of Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, in the midst of the holiday of Passover.

First, there was the connection between Passover and the experience of those affected by the hurricane and its aftermath.

We read, in the Haggadah, that “b’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim.” In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. The Ashkenaz Haggadah says “lirot et atzmo” – to see oneself. But the Sephardi Haggadah, following Maimonides, reads, “le’harot et atzmo” – to manifest oneself. Rambam (Maimonides) indicates that we are to act, in some tangible way, as though we ourselves went out from Mitzrayim (Egypt). Rambam’s reading underscores the connection between history, memory, and action. I believe that this connection is fundamental to understanding – and undertaking – acts of social justice. My own journey into the history and narrative of what happened in New Orleans during the past 18 months is now spurring me to share these stories, and to act.

Last year, Rabbi Marla Feldman wrote “This is the Bread of Affliction: A Prayer for the Victims of the Gulf Coast Hurricanes” for Passover 5766. Her prayer included the following:

This is the Bread of Affliction our ancestors baked as they fled the land of slavery. Gathering their children and their possessions, they embarked upon a journey in the wilderness, leading us to freedom.

As our ancestors gathered their belongings in haste to flee their tormentors, so too the residents of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and so many other Gulf Coast communities fled the torrential rains and floods, leaving behind their homes, their businesses, their neighbors and friends.

This is the Bread of Affliction baked by the wandering Israelites throughout their travels with fear and trepidation, never knowing if the desert in which they dwelled would provide the sustenance they would need for their continuing journey.

Fear and uncertainty plague the displaced Gulf Coast residents too, as they remain scattered in far-away communities, in temporary homes, in trailers, in shelters and basements, relying on the good will of others to sustain them through their difficult journey.

This is the Bread of Affliction that nourished our people for forty years until they finally reached their homeland, only to face a future fraught with danger and even greater challenges upon their arrival.
For those who are able to return home, there are continuing challenges to be faced by the victims of the recent hurricanes: the destroyed communal infrastructure, the lack of hospitals and schools, the unfamiliar landscape, and the ever-present pain of missing friends and neighbors.

I emphasize that this was written last year – part of the enormity of the challenges facing the Gulf Coast region is that, a year later, all of these words still ring true. The Gulf Coast residents remain scattered, and battered, by their experiences. Those who have returned home face the ongoing challenges of rebuilding amid a landscape that retains the constant reminders of the pain wrought by this disaster.

A second connection to Pesach was the actual work that we were doing last week. Passover is a multi-sensory holiday, one that beckons us to engage our full selves in preparing for and celebrating the holiday. The week before Passover, of course, is traditionally the time of cleaning out the chametz (leavening) from our homes, a ritual that extends both to a full spring cleaning and to a moment of introspection into the “spiritual chametz” that clutters our lives. Last week, this ritual took on a different meaning as we thoroughly dismantled and disassembled homes in New Orleans to prepare them to be rebuilt in the near future. We spent hour after hour ripping out nails, tearing down walls, pulling out toilets and bathtubs. But we also spent hours sifting through the debris and artifacts of the past, memories from families we did not know, doing our best to salvage whatever items may be sentimental value.

The process of cleaning and uncovering layers of leavening is, at a deep level, a process that causes us to strip away the superficiality in our lives, and to dig away the layers of that which forms our own mitzrayim – that which enslaves us. There was something very powerful, for me (and for others in our group), in going through this very physical process in someone else’s home. There was something cleansing, as we toiled in heat and muck and sweat. The process brought me to new appreciation for what it means to have a home that is intact, and helped me to differentiate between things that are essential – community, friendship, love, shelter – and things that are, at the end of the day, just stuff.

The third, and final, connection – and perhaps the most important part of the work we did last week – is related to narrative. Passover, of course, is all about narratives: collective memory preserved over thousands of years in the Haggadah and retold every year at the seder. In New Orleans last week, my students and I had the opportunity to hear a different set of stories. We heard Jacques Sanborn, a district court judge whose home was destroyed by the floods, but is now 80% rebuilt; Arman, a firefighter who told us about his home (destroyed and now rebuilt), and about his experiences during and immediately after the hurricane; Pam Douglas, a resident who lost her house and now spends days gathering up scrap metal and wood, working to rebuild her home as she lives in a FEMA trailer; Mike, a truck driver who moved temporarily to California after the floods, but has returned for good because, as he put it, “this is my home.” We heard from Dan Shea, the managing editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who helped us to understand the nuances of what had gone wrong during and after Hurricane Katrina, but who also moved and inspired us with his own story of loss and recovery and with the stories of how his newspaper staff coped personally with the struggle of rebuilding while documenting the magnitude of the disaster for the community, nation, and world.

And we heard the story of Johnny G, our construction team leader from the National Relief Network, who had been a first responder on a dive team. The Coast Guard was doing dive rescue, so Johnny’s team was responsible for recovery – recovering dead bodies. We drove down the street in the Lower 9th Ward where, 18+ months ago, Johnny had found the bodies of an elderly couple and had carefully brought them to a holding area. At the end of that day, as he was pulling off his diving suit and all of the muck and grime and sweat and unspeakable else that was on him, a little girl came up and said that she wanted to thank him. She was about seven years old. He said, “You’re welcome.” But she went further – “You know why I’m thanking you?” she asked. “Those people you brought out, they were my grandparents.”

Johnny didn’t know how to respond, and he just sat there, in tears.

A couple of weeks later, Johnny returned to that street. He wanted to find that little girl and thank her for thanking him. He found the house where she had lived, and knocked on the door and told the couple who answered his story, and said that he just wanted to thank this little girl. The couple was the girl’s parents, and they told Johnny that it would not be possible for him to thank her - she had died earlier that week from an infection that she had gotten from the rancid post-Katrina waters. Johnny was devastated, and he asked if he could go visit her gravesite. They told him that they would be honored…and then, all of the sudden, he realized that he didn’t know this little girl’s name. Her name was Meg, they told him. And Johnny told us that, at that point, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because he had his own little girl, his teen daughter, and her name is…Meg.

The power of sharing narratives was brought home for me through Johnny’s story, and again and again, on every day of my visit to the Gulf Coast. Telling these stories is a path toward healing for the tellers, and hearing these stories can transform us as listeners and bring us into another person’s life and experience. The telling and re-telling of these narratives builds the connections between history, memory, and action that Rambam understood as the core of what happens at Passover, and which is the foundation for social action. It can lead us to act in response within our own lives, within our own stories and narratives.

When we asked the people we met in New Orleans, as groups like ours inevitably do on trips like this, “What can we do to help?” the response was invariably the same. Every single person we met said some version of this message: "Thank you so much for coming here to do work. Now, when you go home, please bear witness for what you have seen, and for what needs to be done."

At this time of renewal in both the Jewish and secular calendar, when we experience spring and dream of the redemption of the world, we have only to look at the Gulf Coast of these United States to see a national tragedy that continues to unfold before our eyes.

Rabbi Feldman’s prayer ends this way:

This is the Bread of Affliction, which reminds us of the perseverance of our people, who survived the pain of slavery, the struggle of wandering and the fear of an unknown future in a hostile land. Despite their travails, they marched onward to the Holy Land with hope and courage.

So too, may those whose lives have been uprooted, who have struggled to return home or build their lives anew elsewhere, those whose futures yet remain uncertain, soon find their way to wholeness; may they be sustained by their faith and the support of a nation that cares; and may their resilience inspire each of us to stand with them in their struggles.

I am well aware that the list of causes to support, and of struggles to fight for, is long and unwieldy. I implore you to redouble your efforts to fight for social justice in the Jewish community, in our local community, in Israel, in Darfur, and at other critical places around the world. But I also implore you to remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and to see yourself as though you, too, have been affected by it. Learn more about what is happening there. Send funds to organizations that are integral to the rebuilding efforts. Travel to New Orleans as a tourist, or as a volunteer, or both. Spend a week or two rebuilding the area.

I come to you, bearing witness, and I implore you to act.


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