I arrived in the US in 2005, just 103 days before Hurricane Katrina struck landfall. I left my family in the beautiful manicured suburbia of Ventura, California, and rode the greyhound north to seek my fame and fortune in San Francisco. I had 100 days to find a job that would support a family of four in the expensive Bay Area, and then find a house for us to live in.
I’m still waiting for the fame, but fortune shone on me that summer. While my job will never make me rich financially, it feeds my family and my soul. I have the good fortune to work with Jewish college students, helping them find their individual path in the world and enriching their Jewish campus experience.
Fortune did not shine on others during the summer of 2005, and as I settled my family into our little apartment in Berkeley, we watched in horror as New Orleans was ripped apart. “Where is this happening? Is this Africa? India?” my then 6-year-old son asked. “America,” I replied. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Our America?”
His America had so far been the beach, beautiful parks and elegantly manicured lawns. “Yes,” I replied and reached for a map to show him.
Another scene – this time of the New Orleans Superdome packed with people. “Daddy, why are all the black people trapped?” my son had asked. “Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why aren’t we helping?”
I silently promised him and myself then that we would do something about it.
Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Those words haunted me as I began my new job as a Hillel director working on the San Francisco campuses.
There is nothing as I work with Jewish students that gives me more satisfaction than recruiting and taking them to New Orleans to volunteer to help rebuild the city and the community. This will be my 6th trip and it never gets old. We not only help physically, but we show we care and that we have not forgotten.
Most importantly perhaps, we bear witness. And maybe, seeds are sown in these students not to accept social apathy and irresponsibility. Social Justice is a central tenant, an obligation, of Judaism – I want my students to experience the responsibility.
On Sunday, I will take 20 students, who will give up their spring break to help the crescent city. Over the next week, I want to share some of the experiences of our group, of groups I have taken in past years, and of the people we meet. Some of these will be posts from past years in case there is no time as this week can get so intense.
A couple of years ago when I went to pick up my son from school after just having returned from such a trip, the teacher stopped me. “He has been telling us all week of the work you do on the Gulf Coast. He is very proud of what you do.”
I thought back to August/September 2005 and the promise I had made to both of us. Seven years have passed, but the struggle of New Orleans goes on, and it is the struggle of American society’s claim to be one nation.
I don’t want the next generation – the millennials – to make the same mistakes that we made. Or my sons, if I can help it. Maybe by being a role model, by each of us doing something, we can change the world – one person at a time.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).