By Jonathan “JC” Cohen
“[Jacob] dreamt that he saw a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and coming down on it… And Jacob woke up and said, “God is here! God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (Genesis 28:12, 16)
When people ask me about my experiences immediately following Hurricane Katrina, I find myself sharing the same few stories again and again. I think it’s because, for me, they powerfully illustrate how God was with us through those long, emotion-packed days and weeks.
At the time, I was the director of URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS. When I tell my Katrina story, I usually start by talking about the 250 evacuees from New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast who ended up seeking refuge at camp. As the storm’s realities set in, the staff and I watched these folks work through the various stages of grief about their homes and their lives.
And then, literally overnight, we watched this group of people – randomly thrown together by circumstance – transform into a caring community that figured out how to support one another. Although the size and shape of the community evolved over the next 10 weeks, its strength and heart persisted throughout.
Yes, God was in that place.
Then there’s the story of Jacobs’ Ladder, the Jewish community’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and how it came to be.
When word got out that we were housing evacuees, offers and donations started coming in from across the Jewish community. During a call with my colleagues at the Union for Reform Judaism – early on that first Friday morning – a spark of an idea blossomed into a plan for Jacobs Camp to serve as a distribution center for relief supplies. Both far enough away and close enough to storm-affected areas, Utica was an ideal location to gather and disperse greatly needed supplies that people were seeking to donate.
After the call, I drove to Utica City Hall to ask the mayor if I could borrow the town-owned warehouse for a few weeks. Without hesitation, he handed me the one and only key.
With space secured, we began preparing it for the holy work we would do there. We also needed to plug into the country’s disaster relief network. At a meeting with a national relief expert, our plan for Jacobs’ Ladder initially elicited a hearty “You’re crazy” laugh, followed by lots of good advice. He and his team were excited to have the Jewish community on the ground with them.
By Monday, the project had taken on a life of its own. We had a full-blown relief supply distribution operation up and running – and were ready to receive our first truck that afternoon.
From the volunteers who filled trucks and sent them off to us in Utica to those who came south to help run the operation – unloading the contents, organizing the supplies, and preparing them for distribution where they were needed most – countless people came together to make Jacobs’ Ladder a success.
There was no doubt, either, that God was in that place.
Every day we spoke with the volunteers who drove supply-laden trucks from Jacobs’ Ladder into storm-affected areas. They shared, sometimes emotionally, stories about who they met, what they saw, and what it all meant to them.
God was in that place, too.
There are many, many smaller moments that I talk about less often. Each story brings to mind another, and another – so many memories, some sad and disturbing, others fond and uplifting, that came at me so fast in those days. They are my cherished memories from that incredible moment in time, and I still carry all of them with me.
After we closed Jacobs’ Ladder, I held on to the key to the warehouse, keeping it on my desk where I could see it. A few times, I went over to the warehouse by myself, just to walk around and remember.
After five or six years, I was finally ready to return the key. When I handed it back to the mayor, he chuckled, “We wondered where that was!”
Needless to say, I was personally, professionally, and spiritually transformed by Jacobs’ Ladder. Innumerable other people, too, touched by the Jewish community’s efforts a decade ago were similarly transformed.
God was truly in that place, and we – and our world – were all made better because of it.
Jonathan “JC” Cohen, MAJCS/MSW, is the former director of URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS.
cross-posted on ReformJudaism.org’s Blog