Home > D'vrei Torah > “With Community Comes Responsibility”- D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot, 1-13-07

“With Community Comes Responsibility”- D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot, 1-13-07

It was the beginning of 2007: crime was growing rampantly in New Orleans and things were getting frustrating. In this d’var torah for parashat Shemot, I spoke about the concerns we were all feeling and of the responsibility that each of us has as members of the synagogue, as members of the Jewish community, and as New Orleanians.

With Community Comes Responsibility

“It is our happy duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, and extol G-d who wrought all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He brought us forth from bondage to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from subjection to redemption. Let us therefore, sing before him a new song. Halleluyah.”

These words in the Passover Seder come just before the first part of Hallel, and just after we’ve recounted the story of the Exodus from Egypt and how G-d redeemed our ancestors from slavery. He brought us out of Mitzrayim with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great awe with signs and wonders. This morning’s Torah reading tells us how we got there in the first place. Last week we read where Joseph was reunited with his brothers as they came to Egypt to seek food. After the revelation, they went back and brought their father Jacob so that all could live in Egypt where things were good and plentiful. The seventy members of Joseph and his brother’s brigade were fertile and prolific according to the torah, but they became assimilated into Egyptian society. The new Pharaoh thought that they would align with Egypt’s enemies and become a threat to the nation, so he enslaved the Jews and dealt with them harshly going so far as to kill the Jewish baby boys.

You know the story- you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie. Did you ever wonder, though, if the Jews were so prolific in number, do you think maybe they could have organized a little better at the beginning and say to the powers that begat, “Hey, you might want to reconsider this whole slavery thing? You might want to read up on Joseph— he’s one of us, and it wasn’t for him you’d still be eating sand omelettes.”

Why didn’t they do that? We discussed it last week—because they became too assimilated in Egyptian society. They lost their sense of community. They adopted Egyptian customs. They lost the essence of what it meant to have a Jewish society. Pharoah had no reason to care that Joseph, who before he died was going by his much-catchier Egyptian name “Zaphnath-paaneah,” was a Jew. There was no more Jewish community, there was only chaos as the people of Israel descended into years of a living hell with hardships, slavery, and death.

Let’s jump forward a few thousand years…

“Welcome to New Orleans. Can I interest you in a place to live?”

“Well, how’s the crime?”

“Lower than ever according to our police chief. There were only 161 murders in 2006—the lowest total in 30 years!”

“Hmmm. Isn’t the population a whole lot smaller now, though?”

“Well yeah, but we try to only focus on the positives. Did’ya hear about the Saints?”

Friends, it’s getting harder and harder to stay positive and be optimistic about the city for which we’ve been fighting so hard to rebuild. At the beginning, there was so much energy and a level of excitement about the challenges that lay ahead—the ability to rebuild a city, a Jewish community, a synagogue, and a home. There was a buzz about the city a year ago and everyone seemed ready to grab a crowbar and a shovel and get to work. Now we need a crowbar and a shovel to protect what is ours. The spiraling crime rate and lack of leadership in this city can bring even the most excited and optimistic to thinking why does it all matter?

Chris Rose, who has always been one of the head cheerleaders for what’s great about the city, channels the minds of so many in his column last Tuesday. He writes that “we are a community held hostage by our teenagers. What the hurricane couldn’t do, what the flood couldn’t do, what political chicanery and incompetence could not do, a random and soulless group of children can do.” For as much as he loves the city, he says he still thinks it’s the right place to live and work, the right place to raise his family, and the right place to face the future. But he says that every day there is stronger and stronger evidence that counter these arguments.

It was sure comforting of Police Superintendent Warren Riley to point out that last year’s murder total was the lowest in 30 years, he just failed to mention that the per capita murder rate was 4 and ½ times the national average with a figure as high as 81 murders per 100,000 people in 2006, a rate roughly 50 percent higher than that of 2004.  Two-thirds of the murders last year were in the last half of the year.

Friends, what is happening? Nine murders since the start of 2007. Five murders in 14 hours, which happened just days after the police chief says that his department was bringing murders under control. More people dying in the last two weeks in New Orleans than in Iraq.

Teenagers are drifting back into this city from where they were evacuated with no parental supervision, no guidelines, and no remorse. Their preferred method of making money is in dealing drugs and they will stop at nothing to protect their investment. A 15 year old boy, who shot and killed Dinerral Shavers, director and snare drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band. Shavers wasn’t the target—his 15 year-old stepson was. A turf war—an “Uptowner” moving into the territory of the “Govs”- Governor Nicholls Street. An 18 year old and a 19 year boy who were arrested and booked with 12 counts of armed robbery for holding up the popular Parasol’s bar, and who were wanted in other armed robberies. Most recently, the community was shocked by the burglary and senseless murder of filmmaker Helen Hill and the shooting of her husband Dr. Paul Gailiunas. Shot while he was holding their two-year-old son. The young couple in their thirties were doing so much to help the city rebuild. They returned to New Orleans and bought a house in the Marigny. They put so much effort into helping rebuild the community. She taught free film classes and worked in community outreach. He dedicated so much time to providing medical care for the poor and underprivileged. Article after article spoke about how loved they were by their community and how much they loved their city. Now they lay victim to the senseless violence which is enslaving us. We are enslaved by those with no regard for right and wrong and by those who are in positions of leadership without the knowledge and abilities to effectively do their job.

To effectively rebuild our community, we must demand a change in our leadership. I’ve supported Mayor Ray Nagin from this pulpit and I’ve shown my support for him in person. But it’s time for him to go. Warren Riley’s comments show a lack of leadership that make me frightened to spend time in the city. District Attorney Eddie Jordan shows a remarkable ineptitude in prosecuting criminals and keeping them off the streets, with a felony conviction rate of 7% versus a national average of 57%. It’s time to bring in new leaders from the outside with qualifications other than the fact that they’re a friend of the mayor—the same mayor who recently ousted the head of the Library Board—a Tulane Law Professor, and replaced her with a jazz trumpeter who has never been to college.

But so what? What’s the point of talking about this now on the bimah? What can we do? Why can’t we just go on to the “Prayer for Everything” and hurry up and finish and get to our cottage cheese? Because we can do more. We can unite as a community and say we’ve had enough. The several thousand people who marched on City Hall on Thursday have said they’ve had enough. So many people who are committed to this city are now demanding change. On the internet, there are websites, bulletin boards, and online blogs, of people writing in with their suggestions. The website Nolaagainstcrime.com has continuously updated articles about crime in the city, and a bulletin board where citizens can post suspected crime activity as well as hotspots in the city where police should monitor. The site Silenceisviolence.org organized Thursday’s rally and presents five ideas for change with what we and our leaders can do.

It’s optimistic that there were so many people at Thursday’s rally and there are a group of dedicated people who are working for the city. It’s going to take helping each other to rebuild our community. And the best we can do to improve our New Orleans community is to take immediate steps to strengthen our Jewish community. For if we can show that we are a strong Jewish community, we can work to bring in the professionals who can help rebuild the community as a whole—the doctors, the educators, the planners, the leaders. What’s the most important key to having a strong Jewish community? A strong Jewish Day School. We must commit ourselves to being able to provide for our children a quality Jewish education. We have seen so many shining stars coming out of the Day School who excel in both Judaic and in secular studies. The quality of education that is in the school is unmatched by any school in the area. It is up to each of us to make the commitment to support the school by expanding its enrollment. We must acknowledge the paradigm shift and recognize the fact that we have the responsibility to help each other and to ensure that our Jewish institutions remain strong. To say “it’s important that New Orleans has a Jewish Day School but I’m sending my kid to Newman” is no longer acceptable. With that attitude, our community dies.

We have two kosher restaurants in this city that provide an important service to the Jewish community. They provide an outlet for kosher dining and shopping for kosher food. Without them, our Jewish community suffers. We have the responsibility to ensure that they stay strong—to send the message that it is possible to live Jewishly in New Orleans. Each of us has the obligation to support these institutions. To say “it’s important to have a kosher restaurant in the city, but I don’t need to eat there” is no longer acceptable. Next time you’re trying to figure out where to eat lunch or dinner—remember Kosher Cajun and Casablanca. If you’re organizing a group of Jews for a meal then you have a responsibility to help them out.

We have morning minyans here at Shir Chadash on Sundays and Wednesdays. 7:00 on a Wednesday morning is pretty early, but there are people who come to minyan who need the opportunity to say kaddish for a loved one. It’s important to them and so they’re here. For them to perform this mitzvah, they need a group of 10 people. Often on a Wednesday morning, they fall short. We have the responsibility to ensure that there is a minyan each and every time this synagogue offers a service. To support each other in times of need. To make it possible to perform the mitzvah of saying kaddish. To say “it’s important to have synagogue services, but I don’t need to help make a minyan” is no longer acceptable. Make the commitment today to come to a Wednesday morning minyan—commit to one week a month, or every two months, or even three.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Leh Lazeh: All Israel is Responsible for One Another. We have the responsibility to be there for each other—to build and strengthen this Jewish community and to unite together to stay strong for our New Orleans community. Friends, Jennifer and I are getting married in four months. We have resolved to keep New Orleans our home—we both agree that we could never live anywhere else. This is our home, this is our synagogue, and this is our community. We hope, if we so are blessed, to raise a Jewish family and instill in our children the Jewish values that are so important to the both of us. And we intend do to that here—in New Orleans. Davening at Shir Chadash, learning at the New Orleans Jewish Day School, and eating at Kosher Cajun and at Casabalanca restaurant. We all have fought too hard for this community to become enslaved by the individuals who seek to destroy it. May G-d give us the strength to become once again a people free and strong—may He once again lead us bondage to freedom, from grief to joy, and from darkness to great light, and may He help us become a community united by the power of His teachings. Amen.

Will Samuels, 1/13/07

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