By Nathan Rothstein
Special to the Jewish Week
Nathan Rothstein at a New Orleans home rebailitation site.
Reprinted by permission from the New York Jewish Week.
In late August of 2005, a hurricane started brewing in the Gulf, gained momentum, and struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast and southern Louisiana. As we now know, the levees that the Army Corps of Engineers maintained, failed, and the rest is history. Deep in the comfort of my college bubble in Amherst, MA, my connection to New Orleans was as weak as the levees that had failed the city. I saw the images of black people waiting at the Superdome and Convention Center -- but then I switched the channel.
Sometimes a college student still needs some pushing from his mother to make social change. I was no exception. In the fall, my mother had received a newsletter from the Hillel about an Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Gulf Coast. She picked up the phone and encouraged me to sign up. The Jewish community, like many other religious communities, had responded immediately to the disaster, in many ways shaming the government's failure to assist Americans in the disaster zone. By January of 2006, Hillel was already sending down hundreds of college students from around the country to do relief work.
There is often a debate about whether community service should be mandatory or a choice that a student makes, but often even those who want to help need to be made aware of the opportunity. My strongest connection to Judaism growing up was the teaching on social justice in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof" Justice, Justice you shall pursue." UMass-Amherst Hillel provided an opportunity for me to continue that connection.
When I arrived in the Gulf for the first time, more than six months after Katrina, I was struck by what had not happened. Our government had abandoned its citizens when they were most vulnerable. The issues of race, and the disparity between the rich and poor, were made evident. For many Jewish students like me, it was clear that the civil rights movement in which our parents and grandparents had participated in the 1960s was not over. There was still work to be done.
Four years after the levees failed, New Orleans is social justice ground zero. Thanks to the work of Hillel and other faith-based organizations, they have exposed thousands of young people to the issues that the people of New Orleans face.
Hillel alone has donated over a million dollars worth of volunteer labor. In a time when the ideals of Wall Street have failed us, and a community organizer is the President of the United States, more people of our generation have found meaning in the work that needs to be done in New Orleans. Thousands of young people have arrived in New Orleans to do recovery work. In addition, many of the young people who grew up in the city but had moved away, now have returned in hope of rebuilding a more equitable city.
As the national attention to New Orleans wanes, we must continue to work on the questions that Katrina raised just four years ago. Why is there still such a disparity between the rich and the poor? What role should government play in addressing these problems?
It has been four years now, and hopefully, four years later, New Orleans will still be the social justice capital of the country, and also a model for how cities can re-invent themselves, and become more just. This winter break, when the Hillel sends more students to New Orleans, there will be those who feel inspired by the people of New Orleans, and like many before them, will choose to return to the city to fight for social change.
Nathan Rothstein most recently served as the political director for James Perry, a candidate for Mayor of New Orleans. In 2007, he co-founded, the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals www.nolayurp.org, a network to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds to New Orleans.