By Carol Smokler
The following is an address to the opening plenary session of the JFNA General Assembly by Carol Smokler, Vice-Chair, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Board of Directors and a member of Hillel's International Board of Governors.
Good afternoon! I’m here today as the immediate past chair of the JFNA Emergency Relief Committee. I had the privilege of being on the ground in New Orleans after Katrina, representing you and the Federation movement. Over the years the committee has been involved in many other emergency efforts related to natural and manmade disasters, from earthquakes in California and floods on the Mississippi to the shooting at Columbine and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In each case, we were able to make a difference by working with the local Federation to provide the resources that were needed, whether that was money, counseling or technical expertise.
Our Katrina efforts built on all the experience we had in earlier disasters, and as a result, this was an outstanding moment for our system. Collectively, we raised $28 million dollars for Katrina relief and recovery. I would characterize it as the greatest success of our collective federation system since Operation Exodus. The fact that we are here together today, celebrating the revival of this distinctive and historic Jewish community, is the proof.
Just ten days after Katrina, I brought a check for a million dollars, to Baton Rouge where a large part of the New Orleans Jewish community had temporarily relocated. The Jewish population of Baton Rouge had doubled overnight. Working together, with our help, the two Federations expanded a preschool to include New Orleans kids, provided programming for elderly evacuees, offered counseling and family services—in other words, they created the infrastructure of a full-service Federation. Later we brought mental health services and resiliency training to people in Mississippi. We focused on helping people get back to normal. Jewish crisis management teams from Israel and NY worked with teachers at St Lucy’s Catholic Church in Biloxi: an amazing sight. With another million dollars we supported the Houston Federation’s efforts to help with the enormous number of Jewish and non-Jewish evacuees who had relocated there.
One of the things that I am proudest of is helping non-Jews. We did this work because it’s the right thing to do: it’s tikkun olam. A secondary benefit is that through these efforts we fight anti-Semitism and increase understanding and tolerance. People learn that Jews care about the greater community and want to repair the world.
During a period of three years we collaborated with Hillel to bring over 4,000 Jewish college students to volunteer in the Gulf and New Orleans. The first year we worked in Biloxi. People there couldn’t believe Jewish kids were putting roofs on their houses. The students slept in church pews, and every night did text study; sometimes the church elders studied with them. Together they learned that serving the community is a very Jewish act.
I made eight trips to this region in the 2 1/2 years following Katrina. I witnessed a community that was devastated find it’s way back. I have never seen such incredible resilience, caring and fortitude as I witnessed here. Being part of this effort has been my proudest moment as a volunteer in the Jewish community. I am so glad that you are all here to see the fruits of these efforts and to know that wherever you are “we have your backs”. We would be there for you and your community should the need arise.