Thursday, March 19, 2009

UJC's Young Leadership and Service Project: A Report From The Front Line

After spending four days getting Heeby in the Big Easy, I returned bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, my whole body sore from lifting, drilling, pushing, and dancing...and I don't think I could have asked for anything better.

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. Almost all American music has roots in N'awlins. That is a big reason why, when the UJC announced that its national young leadership conference would be held in New Orleans this year, I decided to participate.

Now, I've done a few service projects before, and while they are done with the best intentions, they often end up being more about 'showing we care' by showing up, as opposed to making any measurable difference.

I was worried that this would end up being the same thing, because, I figured, most of the heavy lifting must have already been done.

Unfortunately for New Orleans, this just isn't the case.

The first day of the conference was really about creating the case for the service we would do on the second day. We started off on Sunday by listening to speakers talk about Katrina, the levies, and the Jewish community, followed by a bus tour of the lower 9th ward, in which immense amount of destruction is still evident, although sanitized by the removal of much of the debris. Instead of timber littered everywhere, in many cases, there is little left to inform one of the past presence of a house, beyond the empty lot, and occasionally the front steps, which remain as a sort of headstone.

The speakers were headlined by President Cowen of Tulane University, which has emerged from the devastation as an anchor and leader in the community. One often repeated refrain was the genuine thanks of everyone who spoke to us for our presence and service in New Orleans. Cowen stressed that what happenned was not a natural disaster, but rather a man-made one, namely the failure of the levees. The recovery, also, had not been government led, but rather pushed forward by people power, by the connection that people feel towards New Orleans

Monday was the cornerstone of the conference, the service component. When we arrived on the job site, a community center in St. Bernard's Parish, I eagerly anticipated getting my hands dirty. Of course, manual labor is one of the values that separates Israeli and diaspora culture, but that is a whole different post.

My anxiety to move from potential to kinetic action was probably the reason that I was so off-put when, for the half of the day, we weren't given the tools we needed to complete our project. They say a poor craftsman blames his tools, but when you don't even have tools, its harder to blame them. This combined with a lack of clarity on the proper way to construct said tables, and intermittent rain threatened our ability to have the impact we had hoped for.

Finally, drills appeared, and we were rolling, or drilling, or screwing.

The conference did a good job of trying to balance authentic New Orleans culture (keeping kosher is a bitch in that city) and placing connecting Jewish ideals and values with the reconstruction effort. It was evident that at the end of the day, a vast difference had been made at that community center.

As always, though, the real power of these conferences is the inspiration one gets from knowing that there are other people out there who care and are willing to put energy and money behind new young leadership.

I'm already starting to speak with Moishe House New Orleans about organizing a mini follow up trip. Anyone interested?

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