For the past nine years, I have been taking students from synagogues and day schools on trips to New Orleans and other cities as part of a nonprofit educational venture I created called Etgar 36. My goal is to teach younger Jews about history, politics and activism while developing their American and Jewish identities.
Dating back to when Abraham welcomed the wayfaring angels into his tent, the Jewish community has had a historic connection to social action and responding to people in need. After leading trips for many groups that wanted to continue in this tradition, it occurred to me that I could be doing more to encourage a deeper understanding of the issues we were confronting. I realized that what we need is a new paradigm governing the way we think about social action and social-learning trips.
The first thought is to approach our journeys with the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) approach. People have long opposed the building of prisons, wind turbines and big-box stores in their neighborhood by claiming “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY). I fear that, perhaps unconsciously, we are creating the same feeling in what we are doing with our service-learning trips. We are experiencing a disconnect between where we perform social action work and where we live. The reality, however, is that social action work is very much needed in our own backyards.
To be sure, natural disasters like hurricanes are endemic to certain areas, but it would be naive to think that the poverty and indigence in parts of New Orleans that came to light in the wake of Hurricane Katrina did not exist prior to the storm. On the contrary, I submit that the floodwaters merely washed away the pretenses that had long veiled the social issues lying dormant in New Orleans, that Katrina merely allowed the rest of the country to finally take a look through the “comfort prism” of a natural disaster at difficult issues such as racism, poverty, income inequality and education.
I do not mean to suggest that we should cease our trips to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans or other areas of great need, but rather that when we carry out our social learning trips, we ought to make a point of relating our projects to issues that exist at home. By putting our programs into this sort of perspective, we allow our students to bring the constructive energy they develop on our trips back home with them. The end of the trip may thus become a launching point rather than a terminus.
Some years ago, I stopped having the groups I bring on New Orleans journeys paint buildings and instead had them begin working on neighborhood gardens in the Lower 9th Ward. The idea was one I borrowed from the locals there, who have begun to take back their community by replacing blighted street corners left abandoned after Katrina with community gardens. This project allows me to lead discussions with my groups on food as a social justice issue (via access to fruits and vegetables) and on the localization of food. I am able to discuss making connections to food in the context of our Jewish values which, beginning with our traditions of saying hamotzi and Birkat HaMazon, all promote the notion that eating and being sustained are holy conditions.
The same sort of thinking that compelled me to avoid flashier social action projects also demanded that I reconsider where we choose to travel for our learning trips in the first place. For example, it has occurred to me that Detroit is suffering and rebuilding in the same way as New Orleans. Realizing this, I began to pitch a Detroit trip to many of my groups. Unlike New Orleans, Detroit’s woes cannot be attributed in any way to a natural disaster. There, the condition results solely from a human-made disaster born out of social and financial negligence. In most ways, Detroit evokes our own hometowns. Both the social and geographic landscapes compel us to look in the mirror, and, in this case, that level of self-identification can be very uncomfortable. This discomfort, however, can be constructive, and we should not avoid it simply because it hits too close to home.
Lastly, I would also like to challenge us to think of the context in which we perform social action. As a Jewish community, we have done a tremendous job of developing young people who know how to work in soup kitchens, wear supportive wristbands of every color and “like” Facebook pages that discuss important issues, but do any of us who work in a soup kitchen on a Sunday remember the names of the people we feed? Do we know what those people are doing on Monday for a meal?
How impactful it would be if we harnessed the masses that we have taught to work on social action projects for a few hours and turned them into activists committed to eliminating the root causes of hunger in our country and abroad. And this idea comes directly from our own tradition! Our sages teach us that one of a parent’s main responsibilities is to teach his or her child to swim so that the child may be self-sufficient and not dependent on outside help for survival.
Billy Planer is the founder and director of Etgar 36, a Jewish educational nonprofit based in Decatur, Ga., that takes Jewish teens and synagogue groups on social action trips.