Let Your Friend's Property Be as Dear to You as Your Own
Let your friend's property be as dear to you as your own.
(Pirkei Avot 2:12)
I was on my way to New Orleans for the first time, chaperoning 7 of my own teens as we prepared to meet the teens from Greensboro, North Carolina. When we landed and got to the hotel we met up with my friend and colleague Rabbi Andy Koren, the real mastermind of the adventure that was about to unfold.
Rabbi Koren and I met at Camp Coleman, and he was my "faculty mentor," which meant we got to spend quite a bit of time together. I realized that I had been connected to a great guy with tremendous energy, intelligence, and ideas. Just after camp, he called me up with an idea. He wanted to take teens to New Orleans to clean and rebuild and support the people who had returned after the devastation from the levees that broke under the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina. He described a long weekend of working with several organizations to build homes and help those in need. He had some teens ready to go, but he needed a few more bodies to make the trip viable. For me, it was a no-brainer. I was in. All I had to do was find the teens.
So 8 of us left Miami on October 23, 2008. We met Rabbi Koren and the teens from Greensboro at the University of Tulane Hillel, and the two of us ran a few mixers and tried to get the kids to talk to one another. The bonding began.
The next morning we went to Second Harvest Food Bank to sort and package food that would be delivered to hungry families. Second Harvest is the world's largest food bank, serving 23 parishes in Louisiana and Mississippi. The teens had a terrific time sorting food on conveyor belts and packing boxes of sorted food to prepare them for shipping. After four hours, we sent off our palettes of packed food and learned that we had packaged over 5 tons of food (the equivalent of 5000 meals), more than most groups our size do in a full day. It was invigorating for the teens and the chaperones to learn that we had accomplished so much and had so much fun doing it! It was the beginning of our first full day, and we knew we were going to make an impact on the community.
Our next stop was a "Flood Tour" of New Orleans. We packed onto a bus with other tourists and went from destroyed home to destroyed home. We saw tell-tale X's spray-painted on the doors of abandoned homes. Each X had numbers or names written in the quadrants. In the top section was the date the house was searched (often there would be multiple X's--the higher X's had the earlier dates); the lower section would have name or place of origin of the group that searched it; on the sides would be numbers--survivors on the left and bodies found on the right. The X's are still visible on many of these homes. They serve as reminders of the destruction the residents of New Orleans had to face, and as monuments to the people who worked so hard to help when the flood waters settled.
Another characteristic aspect of the city was what our tour guide called "The Jack-O-Lantern Effect." The residents who were insured and had a savings were able to make repairs, while their neighbors simply abandoned their homes, or perhaps had it torn down. This meant a nice, new home was next door to an abandoned lot or a pile of rubble. Like a pumpkin with its smooth, shiny surface marked with deep holes, the city was covered with fissures that still today need us to go and build them up.
Our next two days were spent with the Collins . Phyllis Collin had been a teacher and Bill worked for a pharmacy, thought they were both retired. She retired early due to a bout with breast cancer that left her too tired to work in her early sixties. Phyllis joked with us when we got there, "We were lucky. We only had two feet of water...on the second floor!"
The truth in her statement is that they were lucky. They had insurance, and they had a retirement fund. They owned their home with no mortgage left, and before Katrina their daughter and her family lived with them on one side of the house, what they called an "open duplex" relationship. When the flood waters receded, their home was four walls with an inside that needed to be gutted. They found only one thing in tact: a picture from their wedding, the only picture they had of that special day. Whenever she mentioned it Phyllis would well up with tears of joy that it had survived. They were able to get to New Orleans relatively early and start building when contractors were still available. The insurance money would get them started, and their retirement fund might be able to cover the rest, as long as there were no unforeseen problems. But there were many of those.
They were able to gut the structure and find a few support beams that weren't rotted through or destroyed by mold. They put in some wiring and piping. Then they were struck by looters. So they put in more, and Bill spent the night in his truck outside the home. Then their air conditioning unit was stolen. Then their brother's copper wiring was stolen. All these things cost them a little more of their savings. Finally it came to a head. Phyllis has made a promise to herself that she would do anything to fix the house but she wouldn't go into debt. They were paying contractors to repair their home, and they just couldn't afford the painting that needed to be done. This was not decorative painting, by the way. It is the base coat of paint that protects a home from weather, insects, and general wear and tear. And they couldn't afford it.
The way Phyllis tells it, we came in to town at the perfect moment. She had just broken down, realizing that they couldn't paint the house and would need to go into debt. She walked outside to meet the contractor and as her foot hit the stoop, her phone rang. It was Beacon of Hope, the organization we were working with in New Orleans, calling to tell her that we would be at her home to help her paint. She was overjoyed, and kept referring to us as her angels.
When we got there, Rabbi Koren and I introduced ourselves and our group. She took one look at us in our grubby work books and painting clothes and said jokingly, "You don't look like rabbis." Still shaking her hand I said to her, "You will never see me look more like a rabbi than I do today." Our group spent two days painting the Collins home. We worked hard, laughed hard, and got to know Phyllis and Bill as they watched us work or as we squatted over "po' boys" in their driveway. Perhaps the thing that amazes me most when I think about Phyllis Collin is her attitude. Through all the difficulties she had to bear, she seemed to always be smiling. She told us she had found strength in faith, and she knew everything was going to be all right.
After two days of painting their home, we said goodbye to our new friends from Greensboro and boarded a plane back to Miami. We were tired and our muscles ached, but we felt a little lighter than when we arrived in New Orleans. We knew that we had done little to impact the city of new Orleans, and one of our guides told us that if people kept coming in to help at the same pace they are now, rebuilding will probably be complete in 2036. Nevertheless, we are taught that to Jews, each person is worth an entire world. We knew that the Collins felt like we had saved their life, and we, in turn, had saved an entire world.