Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, the birthday of a man who had a vision of a society where race and color would add to an exciting web of egalitarian diversity. We have achieved much since he took up the struggle, but we still have a long way to go.
When the waters rose above the dysfunctional levees of New Orleans, when the storm hit, nature did not differentiate between black and white, Christian and Jew. But the reality is that the areas which have a high percentage of African-Americans, were the worst hit.
When the survivors share their stories, race is almost always in the background and often in the forefront. Many of the travesties recounted by black people who got caught in the storm, when not relating to the wrath of Mother Nature, focus on how they were treated by what they perceive as the white authorities.
I am working in the Lower Ninth Ward. I have been here every year but once, when our group was sent to nearby St. Bernard’s Parish. The Lower Ninth Ward saw the worst destruction and may never recover despite the best intentions.
The Lower Ninth Ward, though mired in poverty, boasts 95% home ownership and has the highest density of African-American home ownership in the country. Those of us who return year after year to volunteer should come regardless of the victim’s skin color. But I would be lying if, as a white Jew, I did not admit to being aware of the race element, and how it strengthens my desire to return and help rebuild these communities.
Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. We all need to help build that vision. There is a Jewish saying: It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Here is my offering for Martin Luther King Jr’s Day. Thank you to Janis Ian for a timeless song.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) 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 www.alonshalev.com/