September 29, 2006
This week , my sister, a Rabbi in Miami, e-mailed me her Rosh Hashanah sermon. I can’t tell you how tempting it was to use it tonight! The problem is that I have too many family members present who were also on the e-mail list, and they would surely rat me out…
…Too many family members, is there such thing? I think that’s like saying we have too many chocolate chip cookies!
However, they are the reason I am here today (the family, not the cookies.) Not just tonight, but for the past 31 years. I am a fifth generation New Orleanian and a fifth generation member of Congregation Gates of Prayer. These deep roots are a large part of why Suzy and I feet so strongly about being here in New Orleans and giving our time and money to jumpstart our community.
I must say that sitting down to write some words to say to you tonight forced me to do something that I have been avoiding for well over a year…thinking. But seriously, I had to sit down and reflect on what we have just been through. I thought back to the week of Katrina, and I remembered that I didn’t let myself think about what was actually going on. I simply acted. There were too many people and too many issues to take care of to stop and think. I’ve had the same excuse for the past year. After the first couple of months of commuting from Baton Rouge, Suzy and I decided we needed to be here full time in order to move forward. I then spent my time taking care of our clients, employees family and friends who we could help recover through our business. Who had time to sit and think?
Then Suzy and I decided to start a family and we began to prepare for the birth of our first child. I certainly didn’t have any time to reflect. At the beginning of August, David arrived. Now I don’t have the time or energy to stop and do anything! Nonetheless, I sat down this week to put some thoughts together to share tonight. Upon reflection, I found that it is a lot easier for me to look forward then it is to reflect on the past year. I believe that it is because I am excited about our future.
This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, contains Moses’ farewell song—a poem in which he calls upon heaven and earth to witness God’s dependability. Moses is nearing death and offers a final reflection and call to action. In his poetic summary of the Torah, Moses connects all generations of Jews with their past origins and future destiny; as he reminds Israel of their mission throughout the ages. Moses tells his people that even though G-d gets very angry at their sins, he will always come back to his people. The message of Shabbat Shuvah is clear. Return. Come back. G-d is here.
Suzy said to me the other night that being a New Orleanian is not for the feign of heart. She is right – this new version of our old city will beat you down every opportunity she can. Just when you think you’re finally making progress, it seems as though someone places another obstacle in front of you. We can all fill in your own obstacle here – Federal government, local government, Insurance companies, landlords, contractors . . . Wait! Not your contractor! They are all very honorable people who can have the job done in about 2 weeks!
Despite these huge obstacles, I believe that all citizens of New Orleans have a choice at this point. We can choose to help the city by acting, being forward thinking and optimistic or we can choose to hurt it by being apathetic, complacent or dwelling in the past. I think Ronald Reagan said it well when he said, “If you’re afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside. “
There are things that I hate about what’s going on in the city right now though I can’t talk about them because to keep my sanity, I have to focus on the positive. Our city is moving in a good direction. The charter school system is blossoming, the clean-up has begun to move at an unusually fast pace (in some areas), the city got some great publicity aimed at tourists Monday night, and plenty of regional and national non-profit organizations (who before the storm would never have invested in our region) have committed to aiding the rebuilding efforts.
With all of it’s faults, and the challenges that go along with it, we love this city. Suzy and I loved growing up here and we want our children to grow up here. We love the food. We love the music, we love the architecture, we love the history. But most of all, this is home, it’s where our family roots are, and if nothing else, Katrina reminded us of how very important family is. We feel so blessed that our baby son, David, has four grandparents and six great-grandparents in the city, and we take every opportunity to spend time together.
Rabbi Loewy asked me to speak about my thoughts on the future of our community. I guess there should be some kind of disclaimer here in that this is just my opinion. I don’t necessarily think that anything I have to say is offensive or controversial, but I am aware that our community is very old and its traditions are deeply rooted. And I believe that while these traditions are part of what make our city so special and unique, some of them are also holding us back. If our community is going to succeed and even flourish, change is necessary.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” The development of the charter school system is long overdue for our community. Not only are students getting the education that they deserve, but as part of the charter system, parents are learning about volunteering, leadership and the importance of their involvement in the educational process. I believe that this will build a new generation of people with the tools and skills to get involved. More importantly, they will learn how easy it is to make a difference. This will positively affect the whole city. With their new found skill set these same people will get involved in their churches and synagogues, playgrounds, neighborhood associations, and city government.
And what about the Jewish community? We have always known the importance of involvement and activism. But, our participation is more critical now than ever. This congregation’s membership includes many very influential people – educators, attorneys, medical professionals, therapists, business men and women, engineers and architects – and each of us can help the city move forward every day. You could do something big, like recognize and remove an obstacle that you have placed in front of someone else who is suffering. Or, you can do something as simple as not littering. Every little thing that you do has the potential to help us all move forward. This recovery is a marathon.
It never has been easy being Jewish, it certainly was never inexpensive. Our community needs us now more than ever. Try to give of yourself to at least one cause. I don’t have to tell you that there are less of us here right now. If we want to continue to have a strong influence in the greater community, we need to step in and fill the shoes of those who left. The past year has certainly shown us the importance of community.
And I am proud of the way that our congregation reached out to members from the very beginning of this tragedy. I am honored to be part of a regional Jewish community that worked tirelessly to rescue community members until everyone was out. We are lucky to be a part of such a caring movement.
A few weeks ago, I was at an interesting meeting. It was supposed to be a chance for local Federation professionals to discuss with Young Adult Division lay leaders the fact that we would need to move forward without a staff member assigned to work with us for a period of time. The group responded, as I would have expected, with a discussion of the future no different than if there was a staff member to work with. But, then the discussion took an unexpected turn. We began to talk about how to make activities and events successful when we have a smaller target audience, but still a variety of Jewish groups for Young Adults. We agreed that each of the organizations’ young adult groups need to work together to share resources (including the ever valuable mailing lists), ideas, and events in an effort to produce programs that fulfill the broader goal of bringing together young Jewish locals. The result will hopefully be creative, meaningful programming that individuals look forward to attending. This very simple concept of organizations working together instead of competing stands as novel in this community.
Today, there is no room for divisiveness. I hope that all local Jewish agencies and congregations will try hard to work together and embrace this new paradigm of cooperation and unity as it will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. We all need to keep our eyes on the real goal.
What do I see in the future? I see a city similar to the city that I grew up in, but cleaner, smarter, more socially conscious and lead by a government that we can be proud of. In the Jewish Community, I do see fewer members, yet a greater cohesiveness and more Jewish led community action. At the expense of being trite, I’ll say the future is in our hands. Our community is at a crossroads and we are together in the driver’s seat.
L’dor vador nagid gadlekha – may we continue to praise your glory O G-d.