Doing Tikkun Olam in New Orleans

GA Participants Head to the Lower 9th for Service Project
by Josh Nathan-Kazis

Volunteers attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America cleared overgrowth in the Lower 9th Ward.

In a much-ballyhooed first, around half of those attending the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America participated in volunteer service projects around New Orleans this afternoon.

And though questions are often raised about the effectiveness of day-long service programs like this one, activists from non-Jewish partner organizations at one of the project sites said that they thought the work had positive impact – albeit not exactly the impact the participants thought they were having.

Linda Jackson, an area resident and member of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association, said that she hoped the outside help, and the media attention it received would shame local government into dedicating more resources to the neighborhood. While local activists agreed that clearing the grasses was important, a number said that the project’s real impact would be on how the work was perceived, both by locals and by the government.

“The people who live here are overwhelmed,” said Denise Thornton, who runs Beacon of Hope Resource Center, which partnered with Repair the World, a new Jewish social service group, to run the program, a brush clearing project in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When [the Jewish volunteers] come it just gives us a kind of a lift, emotionally.

Deployed across different areas of the city, volunteers from the G.A. cleared brush, packed meals, cleaned a park, and recycled the plastic Mardi Gras beads that carpet the streets during the annual Lent celebration. Representatives of Repair the World, which coordinated the day, said that 1,500 people worked on service projects or what they called service learning tours, and that another 300 had put together packages for the homeless.

In the Lower 9th Ward project, a few hundred volunteers – mostly students brought to the convention by the Jewish youth groups Hillel or BBYO – attacked overgrown brush on empty lots and around abandoned houses with pruning implements and rakes.

“The before and after pictures of this neighborhood will be fantastic,” said Evan Howard, a local activist with a group called who was helping manage the Jewish volunteers.

The project focused on two neighboring intersections along North Tonti Street in the Lower Ninth. Jackson, of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowner’s Association, said that the brush constituted a hazard. High grasses block the sightline of cars as they approach one another at intersections, she said.

Others said that the grasses contributed to crime in the area and prevented residents from returning. “I think we’re making a big difference in the community,” said Becca Nance, a high school student with the BBYO group. She said that she had never participated in projects like this before.

On one empty lot, volunteers were clearing low brush with hand-held implements – work that looked as though it could have been done more efficiently with a lawnmower. But a local activist said that the amount of debris on the ground made the use of lawnmowers difficult.

At a second site, a local community organization that recycles Mardi Gras beads, only a handful of volunteers were present. The project had clearly been set up for a large number of participants. Repair the World spokesman couldn’t immediately explain why the project had such low participation, but said that all of the other sites had hundreds of GA attendees.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.