Resilience and Hope in New Orleans

Published on January 4, 2012 by Jeremy Burton


This is the first in a series of stories by TELEM staff, participants, colleagues, and partners about a transformative service experience.

Before I came to JCRC, I often led groups of Jewish volunteers to perform community service in neighborhoods recovering from Hurricane Katrina. That’s how I met Robert Green in 2010. Mr. Green is a resident of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. He lives just blocks from a levee where, on August 29th, 2005, a barge flowed through the break and came to a halt just behind his home. His mother and his 5-year-old granddaughter died in that flood.

When my group was visiting his block, he came out to talk with us and noticed my kippah. He told us how pleased he was to see a Jewish group and about how a Solomon Schechter class from New Jersey had cleared out the debris on his property and prepared it to be rebuilt. In front of his house was a memorial marker and flagpole honoring the women his family lost during Katrina. We had noticed stones at the base of the marker, just like you would see at a Jewish cemetery. He told us that the Schechter kids had explained the Jewish tradition of placing stones to honor the dead and asked if they might honor his family in this way. A new tradition was born in the community, and we too placed stones on Mr. Green’s memorial.

When you talk to Mr. Green you hear a resilient and hopeful voice in the face of extraordinary challenges. Resilient because even with the loss of his loved ones he came back as have so many others, and hopeful because he saw how people across the nation, Jews and others, stand with him and his community in these difficult years.

He heard the message that “you were here for us” because we demonstrated through our service that we saw his struggle as ours. He mentions his optimism that we will continue to stand with his community because, “seeing you here gives me hope.”

The power of volunteerism, whether in Boston or around the world is to fulfill that belief and stand with others for our common good, through our acts of chesed (kindness). We as Jews can, as we have so many times before, demonstrate our core belief: that we are all connected and that we are all responsible for building a better world.

The JCRC’s TELEM programs harness the power and passion of Jewish teens to build a stronger and more vibrant Boston community. Through TELEM’s ongoing service model, young people return to their volunteer sites week after week, building relationships filled with hope and meaning to participant and recipient alike.

Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.