Rebuilding Together New Orleans - an AVODAH placement organization for three years - received praise in a recent article in the Atlantic. The article, “Sustainable New Orleans: How Katrina Made a City Greener” was written by Kaid Benfield, the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He writes, ”Another particularly impressive PRC program,Rebuilding Together New Orleans, is providing assistance at scale, helping low-income residents close the gap between usually inadequate government disaster assistance and the amount necessary to rebuild. The program has been rehabbing over a hundred homes each year, including 29 in the first three months of this year (plus three playgrounds).”
Read the full article at the The Atlantic here.
‘Common indeed are the ethnographies in which poverty and inequality, the end result of a long process of impoverishment, are reduced to a form of cultural difference. We were sent to the field to look for different cultures. We saw oppression; it looked, well, different from our comfortable lives in the university; and so we called it ‘culture’. We came, we saw, we misdiagnosed.’ -Paul Farmer
Seeing oppression, or more often, the impacts of oppression and blaming it on culture — a phenomenon I have witnessed over and over in the last two years (and suffered from myself), working in New Orleans and in an indigenous area of Panama. I don’t think, however, we just call oppression “culture” because it makes us uncomfortable: I think it comes from a lack of historical awareness. Or at least, awareness of the right history. And the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racist organizing group founded in New Orleans, called Americans ahistorical.
Last year in New Orleans, through my incredible social justice program AVODAH, we watched parts of the documentary film “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” we read excerpts from “A People’s History,” I worked daily and was mentored by people who had worked in the civil rights movement from the time of SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr.
And I got angry.
Angry at the history we didn’t learn in high school, the kind that explains the inequalities we see today. Angry that I never learned about red lining, the legal means by which Black neighborhoods were made to value less just because they were Black, the legal means by which Black families were denied mortgages or given higher mortgages (which, studies show, still happens today even though officially red lining was made illegal with the passage of civil rights).
Angry that I never learned how Black veterans were denied the same uses of the GI Bill after WWII (what good does a free college education do if few colleges will accept Black students?). Angry that my democratic country didn’t trust me with the truth.
And, not understanding the footprints (or, better said, boot prints) left behind by red lining, the only way to explain the state of some Black neighborhoods in New Orleans was culture. The only way to explain the financial situations, the work situations, the foreign world I was walking through every day was culture. But they were false conclusions, arrived at from incomplete evidence.
Several weeks ago, one of my housemates brought up the question, “Are we radical?” The question lived as an item on our white board for the week preceding our house meeting, just the one word: “RADICAL?”
At the meeting, we composed a long list of what it meant to be Radical. No electricity, home- baked bread, daily meditation. Aromatherapy and raw milk. Slam poetry and political rallies. The list now hangs on the wall in our living room. Looking at our bulleted list of radical, I asked myself, am I “radical”? Before we wrote the list I would have said no, but a lot of what went onto that list of radical were things that I’d grown up around, or had experience with, or had participated in.
My family has a long history of homesteading. My grandparents were part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s, and unlike many of their counterparts, managed to actually stay on the land for their entire adult lives. Subsequent generations of our family have also adopted this as a way of life, living off the grid alone and in communes. So although I grew up in town, I was always very aware of growing your own food, building your own house, avoiding processed foods and electricity and gasoline and popular culture. Although I don’t plan on raising a family off the grid, I appreciate the values and commitments that lifestyle requires, and, yes, I know how to bake bread in a wood-burning stove.
And to add to that, the town I grew up in was far from typical. Northampton, MA embraces all things alternative, political, subversive, new age, homegrown - you name it. “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” is one of the most popular bumper stickers in town. There’s been an anti-war rally held downtown every week since the 1970’s. If you’re looking for crystals – for goodness knows what – there are multiple stores you can go to. We also have one of the highest percentage of lesbian households of any town in the country.
So this is what I come from – an earthy-crunchy DIY family and an ultra-liberal hippie’s paradise. And now I work as a community organizer in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, living in an intentional community. To many, all this seems like some pretty radical stuff – but I just don’t feel radical!
When I tell people that I live with nine others - yes, in one house - yes, I share a room - yes, we buy all our food together - I can tell from their widened eyes, raised eyebrows, and exclamations of surprise that to them my choices and my lifestyle are radical. Of course, to me it doesn’t seem radical from the inside. But then when I look at the Catholic Worker House in New Orleans, I feel like they are actually radical. Total shared incomes! Values of anarchy and taking in the homeless! They’ll feed anyone, anytime! How radical is that??
What use is this term “radical” if we all just keep looking at other people to use it? Do we need to reclaim radical, acknowledge that yes, we may actually be leading radical lives? If I introduce radical into my own life, then it forces me to redefine what radical means. Maybe radical can mean living in community, forming relationships with others. Is it radical to be a good citizen?
To insist that the food that I put into my body conforms to my ideals - ideals which insist that all humans are equal and worthy of the same opportunities I am privileged to have? If I reduce radical to such simple terms, am I destroying any significance the word can hold?
But having lived in AVODAH for a few months, I would argue that all this is far from simple. This is difficult, difficult work - to reach across the divides that society creates for us in staggering multiplicity and forge true, intimate, and sustaining connections with other human beings. Fighting the degradation of the environment, opposing violence, rejecting patriarchy, combating racism, protesting corporate greed: these may be among the most monumental challenges we will ever face. No one ever said being a radical was easy.
Maybe radical is all about choice. I grew up in Northampton, but I didn’t choose to live there; it is not a haven for me as it is for others, who chose Northampton after experiencing disenfranchisement and discrimination elsewhere. In the same way, baking your own bread is a dramatically powerful action if you are doing it after a lifetime of buying sliced, bagged bread. Maybe radical is found, not in the lifestyle, but in the choice to pursue it; not in the action, but in the intention. If choice and change and embracing the new are all radical, then we all have a shot at achieving some radicalism in our lives. Perhaps choosing AVODAH, moving to New Orleans, opting for communalism and no privacy and partially-shared incomes, is in fact the most radical thing I have ever done.
As part of my AVODAH experience this year, I generally spend Tuesday evenings involved in some form of program at home or in a nearby spot that has agreed to host us. These range from learning about how New Orleans’ geography shaped its history to an introduction to the convoluted legal system, from exploring a text about the Chanukah story to story circles and community building. For many of these programs, we (corps members) have the opportunity to meet with individuals from the local community who come in for a couple of hours to share their expertise with us. These facilitators help us build on our knowledge of New Orleans, social justice, the Jewish community, our AVODAH community and how these various spheres interact.
The beginning of these programs is often very similar with our guest for the evening asking where we are from originally and where we work in New Orleans. As we zoom through the now familiar loop around the room, my stomach tightens. “Thank you all for coming to New Orleans and giving up a year of your lives to do the work you are doing.” Giving up? There are those self-sacrificing words again.
When I applied to AVODAH almost a year ago, it was the start of spring semester of my senior year of college. I was surrounded by people who, with their best intentions and curiosity, were driving me up the wall. Like most college seniors, I was constantly being asked what I would be doing next year
and I had no idea. When I found the application online over winter break, it seemed like an amazing opportunity. Through AVODAH I could explore social justice work, which I have known I am passionate about, and Judaism, which has always been part of my life but about which I know painfully little. Even better, I would be able to answer the dreaded question - “what is your plan for next year?”
I guess my point is that it never occurred to me that I was giving up anything for my year of volunteer service in New Orleans. Since I moved here in August, I have spent my time trying new food, meeting new people, listening to new music, exploring a possible career path and learning something every day from my housemates, my students (I assistant teach 1st and 2nd grade), my co-workers, and my new city.
As a result, my days both at work and at home are intense, stressful and more rewarding than I could imagine. So what makes my stomach twinge at the end of our introductions is not the “thank you for coming”; in fact, knowing that the people here feel my work is beneficial is what makes it worthwhile. What makes me uncomfortable is to be seen as a martyr when I am not in New Orleans giving up something else I would rather do. On the contrary, this is exactly where I want to be. I know that I have already learned a lot and that I will continue to grow from this experience, probably more than I can ever give back in just one year. So I want to say that I am not giving up anything, but rather thank you to the people of New Orleans for giving me the chance to call this vibrant, unique city, home.
Note from the Editors: We are pleased to present this guest post from AVODAH alumn Michal Boyarsky (NOLA ‘09-’10). As with all writing on jews4neworleans.org this post reflects the personal experiences of the author and does not reflect the opinions of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.
What’s going on in Sheikh Jarrah is nothing new. In fact, it’s the same story everywhere–within 1967 borders and in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government is taking over Palestinian homes, towns, communities, olive groves, water, livelihoods. In this particular case, Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, is the site of weekly protests against court-ordered evictions of Palestinian residents from their homes. Jews who claim prior ownership of homes and property in the area are permitted to settle there even though they have other homes and have not lived in the neighborhood for decades, while Palestinians who have no other place to go are being thrown out of their homes.
The Sheikh Jarrah protests are interesting because they are becoming increasingly mainstream. A friend of mine told me that the weekly Friday afternoon protests were even listed in the magazine “Time Out Tel Aviv” recently. And while protests against the Occupation in the West Bank have a reputation for being violent and dangerous (think flying stones and tear gas, police brutality and arrests), the ones in Sheikh Jarrah, although there used to be more violence and arrests, have been relatively calm and peaceful in recent months.
I think there is both a positive and a negative to this aspect of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations. The political climate in Israel is so right-wing, with such a stigma attached to being a “left-wing activist” (side note: I looked up some old Ha’aretz articles on Sheikh Jarrah, and was really surprised by how many times the phrase “left-wing activists” was repeated. Even though most of the articles generally had a “left-wing” spin themselves, the phrase “left-wing” here is really, really powerful and often negative)–that I think it’s a good thing the protests are being “normalized” a little bit (people know about them, you can casually attend them, they were listed in “Time Out Tel Aviv”).
On the other hand, when I was there with my friend Itamar, he asked me, “How long do you think this can go on this way?” The protesters stand in a park opposite a bunch of police and chant things like, “1, 2, 3, 4, Occupation No More”–to whom? To the police? To the deaf cars passing by? Who is listening? Do people listen more when there is violence, tear gas, beatings, arrests, or Americans bulldozed to death? What happens when a movement–any movement–becomes mainstream?
When I was at the Sheikh Jarrah, I found a lot of parallels between the demonstration and a New Orleans Second Line. At both there are drums, parading (though of a very different nature, to be sure), people selling drinks (beer at second lines, sachlav and tea at Sheikh Jarrah) and food (pralines and sweet potato pies in New Orleans, corn on the cob in East Jerusalem). At first, that might seem odd–and it is a bit odd that such a serious issue as Sheikh Jarrah could have so much in common with a lighthearted event like a NOLA Second Line–but I think the nature of the two events actually have a bit more in common than it would first appear. The Second Line tradition also grew out of tragedy, as second lines traditionally occurred after funerals. Both are, in a way, a declaration–”we are here!”–we, black native New Orleanians who live in these neighborhoods and play in brass bands and can dance like whoa and bake the best sweet potato pie you’ve ever tasted; and we, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem who live in these neighborhoods and are in danger of being kicked out, and are hospitable beyond belief and make the best coffee and sachlav you’ve ever tasted. We, whose very existence is in danger–by rising incarceration rates or by evictions–here we are. Even though you are trying to erase us, make us invisible, forget we are here and convince us that we do not deserve to exist–here we are.
And to added another complicated layer to it all, I don’t think it’s unproblematic that I am saying”we” because my “we” is not really the “we” of the second lines OR the “we” of the Palestinian families of Sheikh Jarrah, no matter how much I might enjoy the music and the dancing or be in solidarity with the people of New Orleans and East Jerusalem. Second lines have seen an increase in white folks and tourists and transplants, and the Sheikh Jarrah protesters are predominantly young Jews (let’s remember, a Jewish person in Israel has a lot more privilege and safety than a Palestinian, and is in a much better position to risk, say, being arrested). While solidarity is incredibly important, it’s also critical that we don’t drown out the voices or erase the bodies or forget the lived experiences of the people with whom we are in solidarity.
For me, maintaining that balance is a constant struggle, both in New Orleans and in Israel.
Read more from Michal on her personal blog, A Jew Without Borders.
ZEEK: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture has released its winter edition entitled, “Pursue Justice…But How?”
For those who don’t know ZEEK, it is a magnificent publication, whose goal “is (to be) a catalyst for conversations about the Jewish tomorrow in print, online, and in person.”
I particularly enjoyed an article by Jay Michaelson entitled “Story is the Peril of Evil” and a response to it written by Rabbi Sid Schwartz.
They are both about the effectiveness of service work and learning in bringing about systemic change.
Michaelson’s argument runs along these lines: “Since service emphasizes the one-on-one and the personal, it tends to take us away from real solutions and toward myths that individual action really will change the world. That sentiment goes well on a t-shirt, but it is factually untrue. What changes the world are massive, collective efforts to fight massive, collective systemic problems.”
This problem that he raises is something that anyone who does service work should think about: are our individual actions helping to create systemic change?
These are the kinds of important questions that Zeek is continually raising.
Here is a link to their website. Check them out and spread the word!
More than 4,000 Jews from around the world came to New Orleans November 5-9, 2010 for the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, the largest annual gathering of Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the United States. The New Orleans Jewish community came out in force to volunteer at the event, hosting visitors with characteristic grace and enthusiasm. Among those local volunteers were the AVODAH New Orleans Corps members and alumni.
AVODAH participants continually express their gratitude to the New Orleans Jewish community for the warm embrace they receive upon arriving to the city, and explain that becoming part of that community is one of the greatest features of the AVODAH program here. So for many of them, the GA was an opportunity to return the favor by joining with the local community to welcome thousands of visitors with the same hospitality that they’ve received.
A Day of Service
One of the highlights of this year’s GA was the Day of Service, organized in part by AVODAH. This year marked the first time the GA has included a large-scale volunteer project. Participants chose between spending an afternoon doing hands-on service projects such as rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina or taking tours of various non-profit organizations to meet with the extraordinary staff working to respond to their communities’ post-Katrina needs.
AVODAH Corps member Rachel Laing led a bus tour that included a visit to the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED), where participants heard from AVODAH alum David Eber. David first began working at the CSED as a Corps member two years ago and continues to serve on staff as Outreach Coordinator. The mission of the CSED is to stimulate civic engagement, support community leaders, and preserve resources in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.
On another bus tour, Corps member Tamar Toledano and alum Mallory Falk spoke to a group of GA participants about working with New Orleans youth through their respective placement organizations: Young Aspirations / Young Artists (YA/YA) and Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink). At YA/YA, Tamar works with local youth to create public art projects that raise awareness of social justice issues. By teaching creative young people art skills and entrepreneurship, YA/YA empowers youth to become successful adults by providing positive education experiences while fostering and supporting their ambitions. At Rethink, Mallory facilitates after-school programs and summer workshops, supporting and empowering young people to use their experiences, their voices, and their leadership skills to create positive change in their schools and in their world.
AVODAH Plays a Large and Visible Role at the GA
In addition to our participants and alumni leading bus tours, AVODAH played a large and visible role at the GA.
AVODAH was profiled in the Jewish Federation of North America’s promotional video for the Day of Service, in which several of our alumni were interviewed.
Current Corps members participated in the BBYO Teen Summit on the Environment, which took place alongside the GA.
AVODAH’s Executive Director Marilyn Sneiderman wrote an article about the importance of community in sustaining the energy and focus of social change agents in the latest issue of Zeek Magazine, which was widely distributed at the GA.
AVODAH’s logo appeared on all of the “Day of Service” posters and materials, and we had the opportunity to distribute new AVODAH postcards to GA participants.
A Special Thanks
Our sincerest gratitude goes to artist and DC AVODAH Advisory Council member Gary Rosenthal. Gary provided AVODAH with space to display our materials and donated one of his beautiful menorahs for a raffle to benefit AVODAH.
AVODAH is also grateful to the Covenant Foundation, which generously invited all of our Corps members to attend its annual Covenant Awards Dinner for Exceptional Jewish Educators.
We would also like to thank all of the AVODAH New Orleans Advisory Council members and other supporters who volunteered at the GA, wearing “Ask Me About AVODAH” buttons and speaking on our behalf to attendees.
I’ve yet to officially ask my father’s permission, but I’d like to add a chapter to his book, Biking through the ‘Hoods, a recently self-published compilation of his explorations by bicycle in fifty American cities. It is a detailed volume to be sure, but New Orleans was never one of his destinations, so perhaps I can finish where he left off.
New Orleans is the first city I have ever conquered by bike. My four-block treks to and from campus in Evanston, IL on a broken down two-speed hardly seem to count. I used to be fearful of riding in streets, preferring to stick to the smooth tree-lined trails of the park behind my house in Silver Spring, MD. Today, while I am far from being a savvy rider, riding in the roads is an empowering way to get a feel for the vibes of each neighborhood, and for city as a whole.
Biking in New Orleans is both terrifying and wonderful. The streets are often riddled with cracks the size of canyons in comparison to the average bicycle wheel, and the drivers behave as one might expect in a city known for being a bit lawless. Each day brings a unique moment of panic as I hear the roar of a Suburban accelerating alongside me on a narrow street and I am left reeling in the winds of a passing SUV. Moments like that make me feel powerless. But then comes the opportunity to weave freely through traffic, and I am thankful once again for my self-powered vehicle.
In many ways, New Orleans is a pleasure to traverse by bike. New Orleans is a small city; I can ride from one end to another in forty minutes. In a place where public transportation is limited at best, the ability to hop on my bike and hit up any number of places with ease has little to do with my lack of desire to look up a the bus schedule. I have incredible respect for the sense of belonging that comes from an understanding of the intricacies of a public transit system – just not when my independence is at stake. My bike means weekly games of pickup soccer in City Park, a commute to work every morning, an impulsive 9 a.m excursion to the Marigny with my roommate – a fellow bike enthusiast – to try a West African dance class.
One heavy, cool evening after work, the ride home filled with broken pavement and the stop-and-go traffic had me so frustrated that I turned West, heading for the even and empty trail atop the levees that border the Mississippi River. Once up there, I was transported into the eerie, vast industrial wasteland that borders the city, a world of slow-moving barges, caution signs and shore-side junk heaps. I was relieved to have such an escape, but after several miles, the visual landscape stalled, and though the ride was flat, the view consisted only of backyards. I turned around, and I didn’t mind when the ride home was filled with bumps. Poor road conditions aside, New Orleans still has an uneven share of deeply rooted problems, but I would rather be in the Big Easy than in a city where the going is always smooth.
Our AVODAH community here in New Orleans is still in its beginning stages. We are new to this city, our jobs, and each other, making our collective insecurity a collective need to be addressed. We have done this beautifully. After two months of living together our burgeoning community already has an established ethic of gratitude and praise. For example, after every meal there is a chorus of thank you’s sung to the chef’s of that night’s dinner, we collectively write thank you notes to those who have volunteered to share their time, knowledge, skills or hospitality with us, and we even had a program during a community Shabbat where we publicly wrote down things we admire about each other. All of these components of our expression of praise and gratitude toward one another are inspiring and humbling. We understand and embrace the power of a simple thank you or sincere complement; it may change the course of one’s day or aid in a personal process of healing and renewal.
But lately, something has been bothering me. If these practices are proven to be uplifting, and they undoubtedly are for some, why do I find myself rolling my eyes during our continued tradition of thanking the chef’s of our meal, and feeling ashamed that I don’t want to say thank you along with everyone else? Why am I critical of our public proclamations of praise even when I am the one receiving it? If I believe in the necessity to express appreciation and admiration for another person when it’s due, then why am I recently so bothered by the deliberateness of our gratitude?
Somewhere along the path of my Jewish education I was taught that the real challenge of praying is in the repetition. Some days we are too lazy to pray, some days we feel that God does not deserve our praise and gratitude, and some days we simply don’t connect with the words we’re meant to connect with. And yet through the repetition we are to find solace and occasional moments of authentic sentiment. The hurdle is in overcoming these setbacks, which perhaps will never fully subside. It’s a challenge, yes, but what is the lesson? Perhaps it’s a practice in humility and supplication. These are good things to experiences and important lessons to learn but being forced to humble yourself with words that consistently don’t resonate for you at specific times of the day can create tension and resentment —the kind that I am currently feeling. And yet, I hear the voices of the rabbis of my childhood telling me that the challenge is in being inconvenienced. Yes, rabbi, I understand the challenge but what if I don’t want to rise to it? Where is my agency?
And the agency of entire communities who reject the notion that we are restricted to a prescribed language through which we are limited to offer praise. Are we to say, then, that the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements weren’t up for the challenge because they changed the liturgy they found to be problematic? Is it healthy for the individual to perpetuate male-centered God language when they find it offensive, or to sustain praise for a God who destroys our perceived enemies when we would rather offer our hopes for peace and understanding? It is clear that the language of praise is important, as well as the intent behind it, but it seems that the challenge is in feeling like our issues with God are not being addressed. Likewise, when we compliment another person, we are not offering them ways in which we think they could improve.
Giving praise or expressing gratitude, to God or another person, requires that we check our egos in order to acknowledge another. Indeed we are making another person feel better about themselves. But my question is, does this a sustainable community make? At what point does expressing gratitude become excessive or just a way to avoid giving criticism? On our community Shabbat we learned a text from tractate Arachin 16b in which Rabbi Tarfon says “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof. You say, ‘remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ and they say ‘remove the two by four from between your own eyes!’” Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya then says, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can give reproof.” In this text we are to learn that the inability to accept reproof is a symptom of the younger generation and subsequent presumed inexperience. We also see the ease in which the imagined young person ups the ante in his rebuke against the elder rabbi.
Last week’s episode of 30 Rock summed up this caricature of the young person perfectly when we are shown a clip of a young white man carelessly talking at his interviewer, “Hey are you Jack? Sorry I’m late. B.T.Dubs, I gotta leave for my ironic kickball league in about ten. Also I’m not interested in this position unless I’m going to be constantly praised. And I won’t cut my hair.” The need for constant praise, disregard for other people’s time, inability to take criticism, and shirking responsibilities, this is the young generation that Rabbi Tarfon and Tina Fey are talking about.
Do we desire praise and thanks because we’re young people who don’t yet understand the ways of the world? Perhaps it’s an age-old generational divide, one where the older generation scoffs at an honest desire to be praised and thanked. Or maybe it’s not a generational thing, but a human thing, needing to feel needed and appreciated. Whatever it is, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya have an important message about reproof. People need to feel good about themselves, yes, but they also need the insight to be self critical and independent, and more so to be able to accept outside criticism as a learning opportunity. Does excessive praise stunt this ability? I think it does. When I am thanked and complemented I feel good and know what other people like about me. But how can I grow from there?
In my creative non-fiction writing workshop we recently started sharing our personal essays with one another. Our workshop leader, Lea, explained the importance of constructive criticism stating that if we only heard how good our work is then we believe there’s no place else to go with it, to make it better, more honest, more thoughtful. So too, in life, it is necessary to praise, give thanks, and humble yourself in the process. But the real challenge of these selfless acts and in community building is not in the repetition, or forced supplication, it is in being sure to communicate ways in which we could better ourselves both as individuals and as a unit, a community through honestly evaluating our values and practices.
I am not saying that every compliment should be coupled with a criticism. Of course there is a place for honest expression of praise with no reproof. I am also not saying that I feel like our community here does not value constructive criticism. Indeed, I started writing this blog post two weeks ago, and already in the time between then and now we have begun having talks about our food values and how we can better our eating practices. While I don’t see us publicly writing ‘things we think every person could work on’ any time in the near future, it has become clear that as a group we have reached a point where we have collectively realized that indeed praise and gratitude alone do not a community make.