The Jewish Service Mecca: New Orleans and the Jewish Community
by Joshua Lichtman and Moshe Kornfeld
Perhaps we can think of New Orleans as a modern-day pilgrimage site. Since Hurricane Katrina, the city has become a primary service-learning destination for American Jews. Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, frequently reminds visitors that New Orleans, according to the New York Jewish Week, is now “The New Mecca of Tikkun Olam.”
This headline demands investigation. More than five years after Hurricane Katrina and well after the completion of immediate post-disaster efforts, Jews continue to flock to New Orleans to engage in volunteer projects. While Hillel trips to the Big Easy have decreased since their peak in 2008, the number of groups from congregations, local federations, and Jewish high schools has increased. Volunteer Expeditions, an organization founded by Chicago resident Patti Vile and devoted primarily to organizing service trips to New Orleans, currently has more requests than it can handle.
Vile considers her original involvement in post-Katrina work as an effort to involve Jews in the national outpouring of support that brought millions of volunteers to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “I told my rabbi, ‘There is a lot of work for the Jews to do.’ My rabbi told me to go and do the work,” she said.
In 2006, when Vile first started bringing groups, the question was why the Jewish community was not taking a more active role in post-Katrina recovery efforts. In 2011, the question is, why are the Jews still traveling to New Orleans?
Weil attributes the continuation of Jewish “voluntourism,” in part, to the city itself: “People like New Orleans. It is a known place and people know that there is work to be done.” The sustained interest in service and social justice work in New Orleans can also be understood as a reflection of a number of ongoing developments. First, as a result of Katrina recovery efforts, there is now a nonprofit infrastructure that can easily and effectively accommodate large groups of volunteers. For trip leaders eager to facilitate meaningful trips, this makes New Orleans an ideal location.
New Orleans is not only a convenient location but also a symbolic location that represents and allows for communal reflection on Jewish engagement in service and social justice activities. The Jewish Federations of North America’s decision to hold its 2010 General Assembly in New Orleans, and the Assembly’s unprecedented attention to social justice and service issues, is a reflection of this symbolic capital.
Furthermore, tikkun olam work is not limited to New Orleans but is part of a national Jewish American trend that emphasizes service and social justice activities. This trend can be seen in the dramatic expansion of organizations such as Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Repair the World. The recent focus on service and social justice within the Jewish community helps to explain why Jewish leaders are busy planning service-learning trips in the first place and why there is funding available for such trips.
The notion of a Mecca, however, of a pilgrimage site where people come to be transformed in a week or ten days, does not fully capture what is happening in New Orleans. What is happening in New Orleans is not only about people coming from outside but also about the transformation of the New Orleans Jewish community. Since Hurricane Katrina, 1,400 Jews, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have moved to New Orleans. As a result of this influx, the city has experienced the establishment of a young Jewish community that values social justice and activism. Such communities can often be found in the centers of American Jewish life but are rare in small Jewish communities such as the one in New Orleans (pop. 8,000).
The post-Katrina expansions of Avodah and Moishe House to New Orleans have contributed to this growing Jewish social justice community. Though not entirely removed from the established Jewish community, independent efforts on the part of young social justice orientated Jews have included the creation of a Jewish social justice reading group, a new Jewish LGBTQ group, and an independent minyan. Avodah’s founder, Rabbi David Rosenn, commented that “Avodah’s ability to have an impact on Jewish life is much greater in smaller communities. Avodah Corps members cannot have nearly the same impact on the Jewish communities of DC, New York, and Chicago where so much else is going on.”
Jordan Aiken, founder of the new Jewish LGBTQ group and an Avodah alumna, was exploring her Jewish and queer identities when she moved to New Orleans and was hoping to find some way to bring the two together: “I assumed that the JCC, the local Federation, and the synagogues would have something for the Queer community. Finding nothing, I decided to start something of my own.”
More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, tikkun olam represents both a basis of one component of the New Orleans Jewish community and a draw for Jewish organizations around the country. It remains to be seen whether the long-range organizational aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will give rise to a truly sustainable Jewish social justice community in New Orleans and, if so, what impact this constituency may have on the greater New Orleans Jewish community and perhaps even on American Judaism.
Joshua Lichtman is the New Orleans program director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. He has worked for a number of other Jewish organizations including Hillel and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and is an alum of Pardes, ADAMAH, and New York University’s Law School.
Moshe Kornfeld is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. Moshe is currently on assignment in New Orleans, where he is studying Jewish social justice activism in the broader context of contemporary American Jewish philanthropy.
This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.