As our orientation for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps came to a close the first week of September, we had just begun the process of navigating the intrigue of New Orleans, its unique Jewish community, and our excitement and anxiety about beginning our new jobs at various nonprofit groups throughout the city.
Amid this amorphous, post-college time, I and nine other women were just starting to create a living collective founded upon Jewish ideals and the practical implementation of social justice.
We were more than surprised to find that The Times-Picayune, the primary newspaper here, had printed a front-page story about our program and why we had decided to move to the city.
Confused and honored all at once, we noticed that the online forum attached to the virtual version of the article displayed many critical remarks about our decisions to come as outsiders to a place that has been so exoticized and exploited by foreign "do-gooders" since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
We spent a great deal of time analyzing the remarks and coming to grips with our complex roles here. And this conversation continues until today.
It goes to the heart of my experience in this city, my job at the city's Public Defender's Office and my involvement in the local Jewish community.
New Orleans is a small town disguised as a city. It has its own culture, its own rituals and its own flavor. People sincerely ask you how you are doing, and will capitalize on any excuse to have a party. As a result of its size, warmth and collective curiosity, our Avodah group often gets attention, sometimes with expressions of gratitude, and other times with criticism, asserting our white privilege.
In my job at the public defender's office, I work as a case manager, matching clients with the resources they need to facilitate a successful re-entry into society after their legal difficulties. I often have firsthand experiences of feeling like an outsider. Working with a predominantly black population — frequently doing so in spaces that create an uncomfortable power dynamic, such as jail and court — has made me very attuned to the limitations of what I can offer people who will not initially trust me. And why should they?
Difficult, Fascinating, Rewarding
These past several months of work have led me to believe that some of that initial online criticism was valid. These are questions that I constantly explore with my housemates, who've been asking similar ones in different circumstances.
The luxury of delving into the complexity of these experiences with other voices and pillars of support is an incredible dimension of Avodah.
We have collectively built a community, based upon our shared interest in social action and Jewish engagement. We have learned to appreciate and accommodate a variety of religious needs. This has been a difficult — but fascinating and rewarding — process for me, an observant Jew.
We have also had the opportunity to contribute a great deal to the New Orleans Jewish community. With our enthusiasm and our numbers, we have been warmly welcomed into many different parts of that community. The value that we often feel in Jewish spaces is unique to this city. We matter here. People want to take advantage of what we have to offer.
Synthesizing all the components of my life over the past months — engaging in social justice work in this city in the context of an internal and general Jewish community — are all experiences enriched as a result of this interaction. Feeling at a distance from the population I work with, yet am still committed to, is balanced by feeling so welcome in the Jewish community and in the city itself.
Exploring many dimensions of inequality and community continue to inform how I hope to live with these tensions for years to come.
Rachel Lewis, from Elkins Park, graduated in May from Brandeis University. She is spending the year in New Orleans as a participant in Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.