A Charitable Role Reversal for the Jews of Katrina
Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina focused on the poorest communities of New Orleans and initiated a national discussion about poverty, power, and racism. The JWA's Katrina’s Jewish Voices project is interesting in that it focuses on the experience of a different, relatively affluent, community. It would be misleading to ignore the fact that the Jewish community of greater New Orleans was relatively privileged in terms of status, education, wealth, and other financial resources like insurance. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, Jayne Guberman, project director of Katrina's Jewish Voices, said, “Privileged individuals and families, too, had to cope with loss, displacement and at least temporary homelessness. These interviews show that even privileged lives are fragile, and they point to the impact of the loss of our most essential connections.”
The role reversal that many New Orleans Jews experienced during Katrina was one of the more poignant themes I encountered watching the Katrina’s Jewish Voices oral history interviews. In the wake of Katrina, many New Orleans Jews were on the receiving end of charity for the first time, and found it to be a foreign and uncomfortable experience.
In our conversation last week, Gerber told me that this experience changed the way she and her staff do business at the Jewish Family Service. “I really try to stress compassion to the staff more than I did before,” she said. “That has to be first because I really know how difficult it is to ask... That certain veneer of ‘it can never happen to me’ I know is not true. I really try to impart that to the staff here.”
Last week, I asked Ungar how she feels about receiving charity now. “I’m still very uncomfortable with that and I hope I never have to experience it again,” she said. Ungar is currently working as a philanthropic consultant and is involved with a variety of philanthropic projects in the New Orleans area. I asked if her experience has changed her feelings towards giving. “Some of the focus of my philanthropy has changed,” she said. “I don’t write $18 checks as quickly. When I give a gift, I give a bigger gift. I’ve targeted my philanthropy and I’m not as scattered as before.”
The Jerusalem Report quotes Karla Goldman, Michigan University professor and author of "Jewish Lenses on Katrina:" “Jews had to learn that the full meaning of tzedaka [charity] entailed not just a willingness to give charity, but the ability, when needed, to accept it.” The experience of being on the receiving end of charity, if only for a short period, has given the “privileged” Jewish community in New Orleans a rather privileged perspective – one that holds instructive lessons for all of us about the nature of give and take.