Prophetic Justice in NOLA
During our 4th grade Family Education session this last week at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills we were discussing the various characteristics of what makes someone like a prophet. The words inspiration, guidance, spokesperson, and leader all flew around our heads. But the one way to characterize a prophet which everyone agreed on was “seeker of justice.”
AndI could not have agreed more – especially after my recent trip to NewOrleans for the annual Central Conference of America Rabbis Conventionwhich focused on the “Prophetic Voice in the 21st Century.” While manyof the sessions were stimulating, engaging, and thought-provoking noneof them compared to an elective day-long field trip that I took aboutEnvironmental Justice in the greater New Orleans area. This trip wasorganized and led by the Religious Action Center (RAC) and featuredvarious organizations around New Orleans that are working to bringjustice to many of the environmental calamities that have occurred inrecent times.
Take,for instance, the community of Norco, just 25 miles west of NewOrleans. Formerly a plantation/slave community, many of its inhabitantshave resided there for generations, too poor to be able to move insearch of better opportunity. When a chemical plant popped up LITERALLYacross the street from their homes, the health conditions that arosefrom the proximity of living near all those chemicals were atrocious -cancer, skin disorders, etc. Thankfully, the Louisiana Bucket Brigadeis a grassroots non-profit organization that works with these fencelinecommunities (homes literally across the fence from these plants andrefineries) in their campaigns to make industry accountable for itspollution and to work on moving these communities to areas withhealthier air, cleaner water and a better living situation for theirfamilies and children.
Then, there is the issue of bayoudepletion. While many of us might empathize or bemoan the loss ofnatural plants, animals, and wetlands, I don’t know of anyone on thetour who wasn’t shocked to hear that all of this CONTRIBUTED tothe horrific damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Coastalregions naturally expect water and hurricanes to occur and the land ismostly prepared for that. But when humans come in and start depletingthese natural resources, it only makes sense that during a catastrophicnatural event, nature was unprepared to deal with the consequences ofour actions. Bayou Rebirthis working hard to educate people on the importance of maintaining anatural environment, as well as actively learning how to plant andrebuild these areas.
Our day ended with a trip to East NewOrleans. The large Vietnamese community there was greatly effected byKatrina and we toured the community with Daniel Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporationwhich works to educate about the devastation of homes and businessesafter Katrina, as well as providing resources to those members stillliving there.
Finally, chef Susan Spicer of Mondo Restaurant invitedus to join her and process what we had seen that day. She spoke to usof the effect of all of these environmental injustices (Katrina, the BPoil spill, etc) on the food and restaurant industry -unlike many chefsand owners who decided to leave in pursuit of greater opportunityelsewhere, she stayed in the community as an activist and promoter ofNew Orleans food industry. And, of course, we sampled her deliciousfood – the Cajun pizza was my favorite!
While processing, eachone of us went around the room and used one word to describe what theyday meant for us. While I cannot remember what everyone else said, Iknow that I agreed with them all – overwhelmed, enlightened, enraged,hopeful. My word was helpless.
The day left me feeling helplessthat I hadn’t known about these injustices and that I hadn’t doneanything to educate myself or others on these important communalissues. We talked about what it means to be prepared for disasters orenvironmental injustice and how we can begin to educate ourselves andtake actions on the issues facing our own communities, as diverse asthey are.
I applaud these prophetic organizations – they areseeking justice for those who are unable to do so themselves. They arestanding up when no one else is listening and say – yes, there is stillwork to be done, but we can do it if we stand together and work hardand commit to our cause.
I applaud the RAC for offering a realhands-on experience for rabbis and families at this convention to seemodern-day prophets in actions. It was hard to leave many of mycolleagues, the hotel and the sessions taking place that day, to leavethe comfort of convenience and the world I knew.
But that triptransformed something inside of me. No longer can I be complacent aboutinjustices within the environment or within my community. No longer canI be upset in the moment and then look the other way. No longer can Iignore my responsibility as a Rabbi and as a human being to pursuetruth and seek justice in this world. It is my turn to speak up, tospeak out, and to educate the world – which is still in desperate needof our attention and our repair.
Shenatan lanu hizdamnutl’takein et ha-olam: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given usthe opportunity to mend the world.
Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Templeof Forest Hills in New York.
Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April,the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in theirgreening and tikkun olam efforts. Visit Greening Reform Judaism to learn more.