Category Archives: New Orleans

TV Writer David Simon On Jewish Communal Priorities (He’s Right…)

One of the bravest, most astute critiques of the priorities of the American Jewish community has come, from all people, David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme.”

Simon, who is the son of a national public relations director for B’nai B’rith, was asked to speak at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in New Orleans last November to speak about the good work the Federation is doing in post-Katrina NOLA (where “Treme” is filmed.) To the surprise of his audience, he took the Jewish community to task for not doing nearly enough to help non-Jewish residents there.

Simon was recently interviewed for Tablet, where he elaborated at length on his criticisms.  Here are a few choice quotes (to which I can only add a hearty “right on!!”):

– Upon hearing that most of the $28 million raised by the Federation to help post-Katrina New Orleans was spent on restoring and rebuilding the city’s Jewish community:

At the point when they were doing that, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home…The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew.

– On the response of Jewish leaders when he would raise this issue with them:

…They go to the anecdotal. I’m like, “Listen, I’m talking systemically. Don’t give me your anecdotal bullshit that you went and sang with some Baptist choir or you had some Baptist choir come to your synagogue. Or that you guys had a day where you took canned food down. Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound.”

– On the Jewish Federations’ concern about “Jewish continuity:”

The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any other nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.

Until there is a hard moment of real self-reflection here, younger and more secular Jews like myself—who were raised in the tradition and who still are proud of their Jewishness—are going to be increasingly abandoning organized Jewish giving and going directly at the actual problems.

– On his controversial comment at the GA that the black urban poor are victims of  “a Holocaust in slow motion:”

No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?

Right on.

Young, Jewish and Proud – Time to Make Room at the Table

Here is some video of yesterday’s incident at the Jewish Federation GA.

After watching this clip this morning, my wife Hallie and I had a long conversation about it. Though I was eager to talk about its political/Jewish communal implications, she responded to it more as a parent of teenagers.

As she put it, “As parents, what kinds of values do we want to impart to our kids? Don’t we always say we want them to educated, to be critical thinkers, and to stand up for what they believe in? And even if we don’t approve of the places their critical thinking take them, what, are we going to disown them because we don’t agree with them?”

Take a close look at this clip and pay particular attention to the reaction of the audience in the hall. It would be quite an understatement to say the crowd disapproved of what these young people were saying. Frankly, it was something of a miracle that any of them made it out of that room in one piece.

But as Hallie pointed out to me, these young Jews were doing precisely what they were raised to do: they took a good, educated look around them, they thought critically about what they saw, and they took a stand for what they believed in. And for this they are being disowned by their Jewish family.

I’m sure many will be tempted to say, “Well, I don’t disapprove of what they said, just how they said it.”

Yes, we parents often say things like that, don’t we?  I’m pretty sure that many white parents said similar things when their children joined the Freedom Riders to protest oppression and to show solidarity with oppressed African Americans. I imagine many of their parents disapproved of their actions. But at the end of the day weren’t these young people ultimately just acting upon the values that had long been instilled in them?

I certainly have no illusions that there were also many young people in that room cheering on Netanyahu – young adults who have been given a place at the Jewish communal table. But believe me when I tell you that there are many, many young Jews who have been kept away from the table  – but who refuse to walk away. And frankly, given the extent of their alienation we should be grateful that they even seek a place at all any more.

The Jewish community is reaching a serious reckoning point. Trust me, those five young people in that hall are only the tip of the iceberg. They are growing in number, they are rapidly finding their voice, and as their new moniker indicates, they are “young, Jewish and proud.” And regardless of whether we agree what they are saying, we should be proud of them. It’s time to act like grownups, stop marginalizing them, and make room for them at the table.

Click here and read the “Young, Jewish and Proud” manifesto. What beautiful, beautiful words. I couldn’t be prouder of these young people if they were my own children.

Young Jews Raise the Roof at the Jewish Federation GA!

At the 1969 General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Boston, a group of graduate students stormed the plenum with pickets and placards and demanded a  reorganization of Federation priorities, lest it risk alienating Jewish young people.

Might history be repeating itself?

Jewish Voice for Peace has just released the following press release:

[November 8, 2010, New Orleans]  A group of young Jews with the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace has traveled to the largest gathering of Jewish leaders in the US, the Jewish Federation General Assembly, to confront leaders on an approach to saving Israel’s reputation and building young Jewish identity they say actually turns young Jews away.

Five of the young adults, including 3 Israelis and Israeli–Americans, disrupted a speech this morning by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu with banners that said: and and one of the below:

The Settlements Delegitimize Israel
The Occupation Delegitimizes Israel
The Siege of Gaza Delegitimizes Israel
The Loyalty Oath Delegitimizes Israel
Silencing Dissent Delegitimizes Israel

The young Jews’ website,,  presents the group’s Young Jewish Declaration, a compelling vision of collective identity, purpose and values written as an invitation and call to action for  peers who care about Israel and Palestine. It is also a strong challenge to elders.

These actions are in part a protest of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and Jewish Public Affairs Council (JCPA) newly announced $6 million dollar program to target campus, church, peace and human rights groups that are working to end Israel’s human rights violations through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions pressure campaigns. The Federations and JCPA are calling this initiative the “Israel Action Network.”  Critics say it is a “Shoot the Messenger” approach.

“We’re here to call out the elephant in the middle of the room. Israel continues to expropriate Palestinian land for Jewish-only communities, passes increasingly racist laws in the Knesset, the foreign minister wants to strip Palestinian citizens of their citizenship — these are the reasons Israel is becoming a pariah in the world, NOT the human rights groups that are using nonviolent economic pressure to hold Israel accountable. We would be dismissing the values we were raised on if we did not speak up.” (Eitan Issacson, Israeli-American, Seattle)

“The Jewish establishment thinks that all we want are free trips to Israel and feel-good service projects. That is in insult to our intelligence and to the Jewish values we were brought up on. What we want is for the American Jewish community to stand up and say that Israel’s ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights are wrong and that we will not continue to support it with our dollars, our political strength and our moral abilities. We are the next generation of American Jews, proud of our heritage, strongly committed to Jewish life. We live our Jewish values in opposing Israel’s human rights violations and we invite – no, implore –all Jews to join in this urgent struggle.
(Hanna King, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia)

“We were surprised by how many other young Jews were enthusiastic about the perspective that we brought to the General Assembly. It was scary to ask questions of sometimes hostile panelists, but in fact many people our age were supportive and even asked their own critical questions. We realized this is a terrific opportunity to organize.” (Antonia House, graduate student, NYU)

“Right now, the choice for those of us who care about the future of Israel and Palestine is between the status quo— which includes continued settlement expansion, the siege of Gaza, and the racist Israeli foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman– or Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions. Given that choice, Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions will win every time.”
(Matan Cohen, Israeli, Hampshire College)

The students also announced the creation of a spoof Birthright Trip called Taglit-Lekulanu, Birthright for All, open to Palestinian and Jewish-Americans which they followed up with a spoof denial. The goal of the spoof was to highlight the one-sided narrative that Birthright presents, the ways it renders Palestinians invisible. The rebuttal laid bare the problematic assumptions underlying Birthright such as the emphasis on marrying Jews and procreating.

Participants in the institute include students from schools as diverse as UCLA, NYU, UC Berkeley, Hampshire, and Swarthmore.

A new Jewish Voice for Peace campus chapter was recently started at Brandeis University.

The BP Disaster: New Orleans Betrayed Again

Before we headed out to volunteer at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, we heard an eye-opening presentation by David Hammer, an investigative reporter for the Times-Picayune whose articles have contained some of the most important and damning revelations about patterns of corporate negligence that ultimately led to the BP disaster.

David is a seventh-generation New Orleanian and an immensely talented reporter who knows just about everything there is to know and more about the latest Gulf tragedy.  He told us that before the Deepwater Horizon explosion he didn’t know anything at all about deep water drilling, “cement linings,” and “well heads.” I’d say that as a result of this investigation, he’s now one of the country’s foremost authorities on such things.

David told us that just before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, he attended an editorial meeting in which the major subject under discussion was how the Times-Picayune would cover the fifth anniversary of Katrina (coming up this August.) The Gulf disaster soon wiped that story off the front page and as the catastrophic  significance of this event became clearer, David was eventually asked to track the growing allegations of negligence against BP and the other companies involved.

David was the first to break a number of important revelations. One of the most important was his finding that BP dismissed a top oilfield service company it had hired to test the strength of cement linings on the Deepwater Horizon’s well.  The firm, Schlumberger, left without performing a critical final check – and eleven hours later the oil rig exploded.

I highly recommend David Hammer’s articles, which contain the most trenchant reportage there is on the BP disaster. I will warn you, however, it is not pleasant reading. With Hurricane Katrina, the citizens of New Orleans were utterly betrayed by its local, state and national governments.  Now they’ve been betrayed yet again – this time by corporate negligence and greed. It’s truly tragic to witness the repeated wounding of this region through disasters that could well have – and should have – been avoided.

David also addressed the issue of the White House’s six month deep water drilling moratorium, which most Louisianans firmly oppose. Sadly enough, the two largest industries in Louisiana are oil drilling and fishing, both of which have been devastated by the BP disaster. While most in the state understand the need for the US to break its oil addiction, most also believe that a six month moratorium would have a catastrophic impact on citizens already hard hit by the Gulf disaster. David added that a moratorium also seems increasingly unnecessary given that there is growing evidence that this particular event was caused by one company’s negligence.

I’ve spoken to several locals about these issues – and no matter where they fall on the politics, the overriding sense I get is a deep and palpable sadness. More than one person has said that this latest disaster is in many ways even scarier than Katrina. The breech of the levees, for all of its devastation, was a singular event – and in its aftermath the citizens of New Orleans  knew what they needed to do. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work restoring their city.

In this case, however, the sense is the disaster is only beginning – no one knows how long it will last or what its ultimate impact will eventually be. In the meantime, it’s difficult to know what anyone can really do. As the corporations and the politicians trade accusations, there is little that average New Orleanians can do but wait to see how it will all turn out.

Some pix:

Up top: during a free afternoon, I went to the New Orleans Audubon Aquarium – and took this grotesquely ironic shot from the “Gulf of Mexico” exhibit.

Below: Three JRC kids volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Bottom: During our final volunteer effort we cataloged library books at the Sci Academy – one of NOLA’s many impressive new charter schools that have arisen in the wake of Katrina.

We’re home now,  filled with sadness at this latest devastation – but also admiration and awe at this truly amazing city. Despite it all, I can’t imagine a citizenry more devoted to its community than New Orleans. And in the end, I can’t help but believe that their devotion to one another will bring them through yet again.

It’s Takes a Village in the Lower 9th

We spent the day volunteering at the Lower 9th Ward Village – a community-led, community-driven neighborhood center that opened almost immediately in the wake of Katrina. It was founded by Mack McClendon a former telephone technician who originally had his eye on the large abandoned facility as a place to store and work on old cars. After Katrina, Mack acquired the property with his mind on a deeper purpose: to build a community center to serve the dislocated citizens of the Lower 9th, complete with a gymnasium, job training programs, a recording studio, a dining room, computer lab for youth, and free meals for the homeless.

Mack is nothing if not a visionary. Though he is the leader of a neighborhood community center, he addressed us with the passion of a preacher. He spoke movingly of the dislocation suffered by the citizens of the Lower 9th, how his community is struggling to regain its footing, and how he discovered his own true purpose following the devastation of Katrina. His plans for the Lower 9th Village are ambitious to be sure, but it is impossible not to be awed at what he and his fellow organizers have accomplished in such a short amount of time. (That’s me above, with Mack on the left and his brother Joe on the right.)

Our group helped Joe organize a huge mass of supplies and equipment that had been donated to the center: lots of hauling, sorting and restocking in a large warehouse-like space that will eventually serve as a basketball court. Some of us also did a little bit of carpentry – that’s my son Jonah below helping Joe build storage bins for their sports equipment.

The center’s computer lab already has nine internet-equipped computers and they also house an impressively stocked library. Mack’s short-term plan is to provide A/C for these rooms and to complete a lounge/recording studio. In its short life, the Lower 9th Ward Village has already become a valuable resource for neighborhood youth – and its difficult not to be inspired by its huge potential to serve the citizens of this community.

If you’d like to donate to their effort, visit and join their Facebook group. You can get your name/s inscribed on a brick for a donation of $100.00 or $200.00. I can personally attest it’s a simple but powerful way to support community rebirth in New Orleans.