Friday, November 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities: Reflection on a Week of #SandyRelief

I started writing this one last week, but finally got around to finishing it, just in time for Shabbat. This does not even scratch the surface of what needs to be said and done...

Shabbat Shalom.

Confession: Even as a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan, I hadn’t spent much (read: any) time in the Rockaways before this storm hit. Perhaps I had driven through on my way to a friend on Long Island (also devastated, by the way). So, I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived, post-Sandy.

The New York Magazine cover, which will certainly become iconic, starkly sets up what a “joking” internet meme had hinted at. Upper Manhattan, housing some of the wealthiest zipcodes in the country—fully lit and powered, our biggest concern being where we might get our latte on Tuesday morning. And Lower Manhattan—which has its share of wealthy zip codes too, but also a huge percentage of Manhattan’s poorest housing projects and immigrant neighborhoods—cold and shivering. It is, as it always has been, a tale of two cities.

Houses and debris in Belle Harbor
7 years ago, I spent two weeks in Mississippi doing relief work after Katrina, first with the URJ’s Jacob’s Ladder and later through a trip I organized through the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis. Most of our time was spent on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, where people had lost everything. Homes had literally been leveled; entire towns were simply piles of driftwood. I saw this echoed in Belle Harbor, NY yesterday; streets covered in sand, residents emptying their entire lives into the streets. I also saw in those residents what I saw in Waveland, in Bay St. Louis, in Pass Christian: resilience, hope, and a strong sense of community. Sunday in Belle Harbor, one resident described the scene on his street: One woman had a sump pump—and we just passed it down the street. As each person finished, he passed it to his neighbor until we got all the water out of the basements. As on the Gulf Coast, the road will be long and bumpy—and mighty cold right now—but, the sense on the ground is that they will get their lives back. Forever changed, but on track.

For most of us, though, the images we carry from Katrina are the ones of desperation—of poor, disenfranchised, mostly black New Orleanians, trapped in their homes, trapped in the Superdome, dying in the heat and the water and the lack of power. Move the image several hundred miles northeast, and substitute heat for cold, and you are seeing what is happening in the other parts of the Rockaways. A mostly black and Latino population, largely poor and disenfranchised from the outset, are freezing and starving in public housing projects that still, over a week after the storm, still have no power, and hence—no heat and no water. The same is true in Coney Island, home to a large population of elderly and disabled, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrant population.

When we teach our Family Bnai Mitzvah program, we spend time discussing our circles of responsibility; we ask: what are the communities of which we are a part, and what are the communities to which we feel responsible. We talk about how we make the decisions about where we volunteer, where we give tzedakah, and we talk about the tensions inherent in making those decisions. Together, we look at a text from Maimonides that talks about these ever expanding circles:

A poor relative takes precedence over all men; the poor of his household before the poor of his city; the poor of his town before the poor of another town; as it says: ‘to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land' (Deuteronomy 15:11) (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:13)

Loading a car with supplies for the Rockaways at Congregation Rodeph Sholom
And so, I was moved by the tremendous response to Sandy, not just from my own wonderful synagogue community at Rodeph Sholom, but throughout New York City. Because it is our city, and it is our responsibility. I was moved by the little girl in my community who said: I decided to bring all of my leftover Halloween candy to one of the shelters. I was moved to see the back pews of our Sanctuary filled to the brim with infant supplies and clothing, on its way to Staten Island. I am moved, daily, by the influx of emails and calls and people just showing up, wanting to help. The UJA-Federation of New York sent out a Tweet yesterday, saying “The only good news associated w/ the response from caring people."

I remember distinctly arriving in Waveland, MS just weeks after Katrina. As we began to unload our truck, filled with food and supplies from Jacob’s Ladder, an older gentleman came over to help. He lived in the area, and had lost his house, but was helping one of the Christian charities do—as he called it—the Lord’s Work. He said—and I have never forgotten it to this day—“The storm was an act of nature. What all these folks are doing? This is an act of God.”

The streets of New York City are filled with God’s messengers right now, bringing food and water, medicine and supplies, comfort and presence to the people who need it most. Skilled workers from around the country are working around the clock to try to restore power, heat, and water. These are, deeply, the Lord’s work.

In the weeks, and months, and years ahead—the devastation from Sandy will recede. People will return to their lives, some sooner than others. But all of us will be changed by this storm, and wouldn't it be amazing if we could be changed for the better. Wouldn't it be amazing if  we could be a city changed; no longer two cities—divided by race and class and power, but one—stronger than ever, sharing resources and hopes and dream. Wouldn't it be amazing if a storm that took away power from millions, could shed some light on the deeper issues at play—and show us a way towards change.

That too would be an act of God.