Thank you to AVODAH alum Yaeli Bronstein for contributing this post.
As the summer winds down, albeit the New Orleans humidity as strong as ever, the Jewish calendar enters a period of jam-packed holy days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each encourage their own unique emotional and spiritual mindset. They both embody a time of turning inward and outward in a non-tangible way. There is a tradition to begin building the sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur has ended. The juxtaposition of this time of inner reflection and mending of interpersonal relationships with the physicality of sukkot often feels somewhat jarring.
This seemingly odd calendar placement feels completely appropriate to me. As we lay the foundation for a year filled with continuous personal work, we move into a time of community building. Physically we leave our houses, but we invite friends and larger networks into the space we have created as a temporary home. Cram ’em in. The more crowded the better. Unless an architect friend has wryly expressed deep concern for the structural integrity of your sukkah…
Intentional temporary housing brings to mind the horrendous (lack of) options of emergency shelters and long-term temporary housing available to folks immediately following Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure, which would continue for the months and years to come. From the horrors of the Superdome and Convention Center to the Astrodome and ultimately FEMA trailer parks, residents of New Orleans became nomads in their own city. In most cases, these temporary shelters were unsafe, unclean, dehumanizing and lacking any privacy or dignity.
As we (full disclosure: Meredith and Phillip) hammered and drilled the last few nails and screws into the ancient cypress wood serving as a middle beam, I saw a complete transformation taking place before my eyes. Moments earlier, there stood a rickety old door frame, riddled with lead paint precariously resting on the uneven ground, supported only by two by fours on either side. I was impressed with our amateur handiwork but skeptical about its lifespan. With the middle beam now hammered and nailed, our deathtrap sukkah was transformed into a welcoming temporary sanctuary.
It feels somewhat uncomfortable to intentionally remove ourselves from our sturdy, stable, stationary homes to build a short term vulnerable dwelling in our backyards. The ability to choose a fragile shelter as a transient all-in-one lodging comes from a place of privilege. My discomfort intensifies when I think of displaced Louisiana residents still dispersed across more than 5,500 cities nationwide. New Orleans housing prices have skyrocketed and there is a lack of affordable housing (particularly after the demolition of virtually all public housing in the city). Since the flood, the homeless population in New Orleans has doubled from 6,000 to 12,000.
What statement are we making when we put significant time and money into building precarious, unnecessary, temporary structures while so many people are camping out under the highway or in abandoned buildings?
During AVODAH’s national New Orleans launch, just two years ago this harvest holiday, we stood underneath a canopy of fallen palm branches (courtesy of Hurricane Gustav) crowning our sukkah to formally welcome AVODAH to its fourth unique home. Jenna Pollock expressed a sentiment we all already felt strongly after our brief time in the city: when deciding to join AVODAH in New Orleans, we each anticipated an intentional Jewish community in the bayit (house). What we may not have realized at the time was that New Orleans itself had become an intentional community. Everyone who returned to the city made a deliberate choice.
Many others were unable to make that choice and are still far from home wanting to return.
Jacques Morial, Co-Director of the Louisiana Justice Institute discusses the gap left in communities which causes survivors to wonder how they will pick up the pieces and rebuild alone. “One of the primary problems that people face are the disintegration of social networks that supported them before Katrina.”
The social networks that create support systems in each community are critical. Just as each nail fortified our sukkah and boosted my confidence that it would remain standing, each additional network that is revitalized (churches, neighbors, neighborhood schools, etc.) strengthens the neighborhood and makes it possible for folks to continue the hard work of piecing their lives back together.
As we spend this holiday in our home-crafted sukkot at the mercy of the rains, let us be humbled by our vulnerability, propelled to create momentum and motivated to raise our voices to advocate for everyone’s right to a safe, affordable, dignified place to call home.