What is an authentic Jewish response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina? I started this post in the immediate aftermath of the storm when I couldn't think about anything else, but then I sat on it because I didn't know what to say. Also I don't want you to think I'm obsessed with authentic Jewish responses. (Of course I am, don't be silly!) This is the most obvious, generic and religious response, to me anyway:
Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Jewish law requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes. This is because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy.
To Solovietchik, the real question is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human creativity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is to restore human dignity and rebuild the world.
The most important lesson of any large-scale disaster is the commonality of all human beings; we all have the same vulnerabilities and the same aspirations. Most importantly, we are all created in the same image of God. It is up to us to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters, and help each other with our burdens.
Is that sanctimonious, or does it ring your chimes? I can't decide.
My Jewish cultural response, for the first week of photographs, was hearing the opening lines of the book of Lamentations, as it is chanted on Tisha b'Av. As I heard it in my head for months after 9/11. Well, years, actually. "Eicha yashva badad, ha-ir rabati am, hayitah k'almanah..."
In her September 4 "Give Thanks for Infrastructure" post, Adina found another cultural resonance in the "asher yatzar" blessing.
There's a traditional Jewish blessing said after using the bathroom, expressing awe at the complexity of the human body and thanks that we can rely on this system. Atheists and agnostics can search-and-replace God with Nature.
"Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows (cavities). It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or if one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period of time). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wonderously."
The Katrina disaster shows how much we have become utterly dependent on manmade systems of wondrous complexity:
* natural gas
When these sytems are disrupted as with Katrina our civilization dissolves. This is incentive to give thanks every day for systems that we take for granted and for their maintainers. Every day there is light and water and indoor plumbing and net access is a day to be thankful.
My father had another classic Jewish cultural response; he said that he wished that the Head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, was not a Jew. My dad heard an interview with Chertoff and thought he must be lying. My paternal grandfather, z"tz"l, had very little Jewish education and taught us only this: being Jewish means being honest. I don't know whether my dad or my grandpa thought this was the heart of the matter because of the principle of not angering the gentiles, or because of the principle that Jewish people must sanctify God in our actions.
Either way, my dad was miserable about Michael Chertoff's seeming abdication of his responsibilities as head of Homeland Security to know what FEMA was doing and to make relief efforts go smoothly. I mentioned this to other Jewish people my own age, expecting them to not have thought of this as my dad did. But every Jewish person who knows what happened seems to wish Chertoff was an Episcopalian.
Or unemployed, it would be good if he were suddenly unemployed.
My dad also got tears in his eyes when I listed all the countries who had offered emergency relief to the US. (Unfortunately this was in the context of enumerating all the aid that FEMA initially rejected or delayed.) I love my dad for a lot of reasons but I especially love that he taught me to take what happens to the United States so personally. Is patriotism an authentic Jewish response? Because it's patriotism that makes us feel a strong connection to the people of our country, and that makes us mourn the loss of unique places and their cultures.
My husband is angry. He considers the Bush administration's policies to be nothing short of murder. I think this is also an authentic Jewish response. I can't say why. Maybe because we argued over a Shabbat meal about it. He is angry that people did not engage in political protest against the Bush administration for their inaction.
Perhaps the lack of political response is because we think you shouldn't have to exert political pressure in order to make aid available. I know that there has been a huge outpouring of charitable donation from everywhere to help the hurricane evacuees. If you want to donate to benefit New Orleans and Gulf Coast hurricane survivors who have been displaced, you have many options:
- United Jewish Communities has a Disaster Relief Fund, as does Mazon, a Jewish response to Hunger. You can also donate through the Shefa Fund and the Jewish Fund for Justice. So if you want your donation to come from the Jewish community, those are good options. You can find more here.
- HungryBlues has a post about the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. This is a project organized by civil rights and grass roots organizers to be truly accountable to people on the ground.
- Sharon Wachsler, a disability rights activist, put together an email listing the organizations that are helping people with disabilities on the ground in New Orleans. She recommends donating to Food Not Bombs.
Giving tzedakah is an authentic Jewish response. Nevertheless, I think my husband is right. I think this post from Orthodox Anarchist, "Katrina: Bush Admin Knew, Couldn't Give A Fuck" sums it up just about right. You wouldn't think that making federal agencies do their jobs would become a major civil rights issue, but of course it has. In a comprehensive critique of the emergency response, Kaspit points out the environmental effects of the massive conflicts of interest and other forms of corruption. I just don't know where you go, as a US citizen, to lodge your complaint. I think the next step is to bug congressional representatives and senators to investigate this formally. Maybe not as authentic as hearing Hebrew in your head, wishing that incompetent and/or dishonest public officials weren't Jewish, or donating to tzedakah. But if you are like me and you think "What would Grace Paley do?" (or "WWGPD?") perhaps indeed this is the way to go.