They Are Us – We Are Them

Last week, we observed the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the fierce storm that so devastated parts of the South, particularly New Orleans. There were many haunting scenes and stories from that terrible time. Many of us were horrified reading about the conditions of life in the Superdome (since 2012 it’s the Mercedes-Benz Superdome… progress?), that was set up as an emergency shelter. Then there was the story of a nursing home whose staff and ambulatory patients fled, leaving behind the sickest and least mobile.

In fact as I write about them, more and more scenes and stories pop up. But the most difficult and affecting image that still resides in my memory is the one of New Orleans residents fleeing the floodwaters. They carry their sole possessions in garbage bags while clutching little children. Others are helping the elderly and infirm keep their balance, all with looks of abject terror in their eyes. It was the look that all people have when they know they’ve lost everything and that the future is fearfully unknowable.

There’s something else about that look, something personal. I’ve seen it before in pictures of our people fleeing their homes. Documentary footage beginning with the pogroms. And then more from the beginnings of WWII. I have a visceral response to those photos because I know those people – they are my people. They are me.

Sometimes when we look at pictures of people fleeing and they don’t look like “us”, we don’t feel the same sense of connection. It becomes easy to look the other way. We forget that over the course of history we were them, despite religion or color.

Any human being who has ever had to run for their lives becomes part of that family: the family of the disenfranchised, the family of the dispossessed. To become a part of this family is an awful experience, filled with trauma. It destroys any trust in others. It crushes hope and steals dreams.

I saw this gut-wrenching photo yesterday of a three-year-old Syrian boy who, along with his 5-year-old brother and their mother and nine others drowned trying to get to Greece. What kind of a world is this when families are forced by the threat of annihilation to get into unsafe boats? To climb into the back of trucks without light or air or even a window?

This powerful poem by a Somali woman gives painful and graphic insight into the terror that pushes people over the edge and into darkness when something even worse is pursuing them.

What kind of a world is this? It’s our world.

I remember years ago Elie Wiesel spoke about the necessity to act when we see injustice. He said that to do nothing was not an option, that one day, when our children grew up, and they asked us what we did to lend a hand to the suffering that we would need to answer them honestly. And to say that we did nothing is a message that dooms the future. The photo forces me, and I hope, all of us to ask the question, “What can we do? Can we do something to help prevent such a thing from recurring?”

I don’t have any answers today. But I will. Soon. In addition to so much activity at our temple, we have to make more room for issues of social justice. I’m not looking for us to win a Nobel Prize. Just some way to save one child. That’s a start.

Shabbat Shalom


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