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Getting American Hands into Louisiana Dirt - and Taking it Home

Getting American Hands into Louisiana Dirt - and Taking it Home

This entry is part of our "Let's Get Sustainable" blog series. Look for a new entry each week and learn more on our Greening Reform Judaism web portal.

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I spent this week exploring New Orleans with many of the hundreds of rabbis participating in the Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention. The program has been filled with challenging and inspiring conversations on many issues, with a focus on environmental justice and sustainability - and the Jewish imperative to act on these key issues of our time.

The highlight of my trip was the day spent with Rabbis Seth Limmer and Joel Mosbacher - and local experts from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing - leading an environmental justice tour of the greater New Orleans area. We traveled from Norco, a "fenceline" community next door to a major petrochemical refinery, to New Orleans East, where the Vietnamese fisherfolk population was still rebuilding from Katrina when the BP oil disaster brought another wave of devastation. We saw the danger of fossil fuel extraction and production all around us - from the health impacts of petrochemical production to the damage of Katrina, which was amplified by the loss of wetlands, an ecosystem that should serve as a natural storm surge barrier.

The environmental injustices we saw were disturbing (to say the least!), but we left the day full of hope and inspiration from the activists and communities we met across the city. We heard of the successes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a group that empowers local residents to fight polluters by using a simple, EPA-approved "bucket" to test their air quality and demonstrate the real impacts of burning fossil fuels at petrochemical plants. At the Bonnet Carre Spillway and a nearby wetlands area, we saw first-hand how volunteers and activists are combating the crisis of wetlands loss by replanting the swamps and marshes and teaching people of all ages about the importance of resource conservation. This is what it looks like to "repair the world," one little bit at a time.

We also connected environmental and economic justice when we toured the neighborhoods of New Orleans East with the incredible organizers at the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation. We saw the effects of both Katrina and the oil spill in the destruction and waste across New Orleans East (the community houses hundreds of thousands of cars left behind after Katrina, among other industrial waste sites), but also saw hope in the blooming urban gardens and the amazing young people who are leading efforts to fight polluters, improve community health and empower fellow community members to engage in the political process.

Colleen Morgan of Bayou Rebirth, a hands-on wetlands conversation group, summed up the day when she described her goal in the project to get as many American hands into Louisiana dirt as possible...before it's too late. The more we come to see and understand the vitality of the Gulf for our country and our world - and to connect the environmental issues we see in Louisiana to those in our own communities - the more we will all be forced and empowered to think critically about our own energy use and environmental behavior.

The theme of being a prophetic voice on the great challenges of our time carried throughout Convention, with a keynote address from Lester Brown, world-renowned environmental scholar and activist, and director of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown outlined the major challenge our society faces from the combination of a growing population, a changing climate and increasing pressure on all global systems: food production, water security and access to basic resources. Yet Brown left us hopeful that we can - and must - make change, starting with discrete projects in our own communities (like fighting a local coal power plant or starting a model recycling program) and amplifying our actions through advocacy.

Finally, Convention marked the release of The Sacred Table, the CCAR's new anthology of essays on Reform Jewish food ethics. The book - which focuses in part on building a sustainable food system - dovetailed perfectly with Brown's presentation, demonstrating that Reform Jewish leaders understand the seriousness of these challenges and are taking action for change. I sat in on a terrific workshop just this morning about how rabbis can be advocates for sustainability in their own communities - a great way to "take home" so many of the lessons learned throughout Convention. 

With the one-year anniversary of the oil spill and Earth Day just around the corner, now is the time to act to build more sustainable and environmentally just Jewish communities, working with our rabbis and all of our community leaders. We have the tools for action and the leaders inspired to act. Now let's get to work!

Published: 3/30/2011

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