By Michael Precker
In January, ninth- and tenth-grade students from Congregation Beth Torah traveled to New Orleans for four days of tikkun olam: pitching in to salvage a home nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The group — Alex Berger, Daniel Carr, Gabrielle Taper, Kara Simon, Madelyn Gallant, Emily Haas, Jacob Schnitzer, Brandon Mond, Millie Blumka, Alec Lee, Amanda Avnery, Kayla and Lindsey Kehlmann, Matthew and Michael Portman, Alan Kitner, Jonathan Kalmeyer and Shawn Sutton — was led by adult volunteers Tara Lee and Susie Avnery, and Rabbi Adam Raskin. Here are excerpts from Rabbi Raskin’s sermon reporting on the experience:
“St. Bernard Parish, a county five miles southeast of downtown New Orleans, is famous because it was the site of the decisive Battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson, who would become the seventh president of the United States, defeated the invading British Army, effectively ending the War of 1812. Later generations have flocked to St. Bernard for its vast fishing and hunting reservoirs and spacious campgrounds. It was once home to over 67,000 residents of different races and backgrounds, schools, industries, refineries and many beautiful palm trees.
“Everything changed on Aug. 28, 2005. Within just 15 minutes Hurricane Katrina thrust a sudden and violent funnel of water into St. Bernard that smashed houses to bits or washed them clear off their foundations. In 15 minutes, people scrambled from their bedrooms or living rooms into their attics and onto their rooftops as the swirl of water and mud and oil enveloped their homes and property and families.
“For two weeks, the houses in St. Bernard Parish remained covered to their rooftops in water. When the waters receded, a thick layer — several feet thick — of marsh mud and black oil layered the area, contaminating the water, marine life and soil.
“Today, less than half of the pre-hurricane population lives in St. Bernard Parish, and these kids will tell you that everywhere you look there are just slabs of concrete where houses once stood. How can there be a community when there’s a house, and then three slabs, then another house, then another series of slabs? FEMA’s response to the devastation, once the waters settled, was simply to bulldoze damaged houses, and to date, almost none have been rebuilt. The city looks more like a cemetery with concrete headstones than a community of homes.
“Our group worked in cooperation with the National Relief Network, an organization that coordinates volunteer disaster relief services all across the country. They are the only non-governmental organization that FEMA could be convinced to donate these destroyed houses to for rehabilitation. We entered a home that was underwater for two weeks and was festering in debris. With a trailer full of tools, shovels and brooms, and outfitted in hard hats, work boots, safety glasses and gloves, we attacked this house with the ferocity that only 21 Texans could bring to it! We pulled out dry wall, linoleum floors, thousands of nails, piles of insulation, tangled webs of wires, and in one triumphant moment for all of us, we hauled out the house’s entire fireplace.
“When we were finished, the place looked spectacular, and ready not for the bulldozer to make one more cemetery plot, but for builders to come in and renovate for a new family. This home and others like it are slated for resale at $60,000 and will be sold only to civic employees: policemen, firemen, school district staff — the kinds of people the community desperately needs to re-inhabit the area.
“I am so proud of each one of them. Everywhere we went, from the shul on Shabbat to random passersby on the streets to the ticket agent at the airport, we encountered people who were filled with gratitude for what these kids did with their long weekend, when they could have slept in, hung out at the mall or relaxed. Instead they got dirty — really dirty — did some hard and, at times, tedious labor and made a real difference to a community. One person said simply, ‘Thank you for not forgetting about us.’
“When the Egyptian magicians beheld the fury of the plagues, they admitted defeat. The magicians said to Pharaoh: ‘Etzba Elohim hee, this is the finger of God.’ (Exodus 8:15) Not magic, not hocus-pocus; this is supernatural.
“I thought about this over the weekend because a lot of people refer to storms and natural disasters as ‘acts of God.’ I, however, believe that storms are acts of nature. Nature is amoral; nature does not search out certain victims, or clobber only the bad guys. What is supernatural, what transcends nature, is our response to those disasters.
“The etzba Elohim, the finger of God, was not the storm. It was these 18 kids leaving the bubble of Plano, Richardson and Far North Dallas, to give their precious time and energy to this holy cause. Nature takes a long time to heal itself, but when loving, generous, dedicated people come to intervene and heal the wounds faster, that’s supernatural. That’s divine.
“And that is the mission of the people who say at the end of Aleinu: le’takein olam be’malchut Shaddai — that our purpose, our modus operandi as Jews is to repair the world for the sake of God. I hope we’ve started a tradition here, and that we’ll go to New Orleans and other places year after year to be in the supernatural repair business.”
By Michael Precker