At the Touro Synagogue in New Orleans on Oct. 15th, I am present to witness the amazing spirit of music transforming a social movement. The event is “Go You Forth” – a benefit concert featuring Ellis Marsalis (now in his 80s), The Green Pastures Baptist Choir (from the Bronx) and the spiritually-inspiring voice and music of Neshama Carlebach. The benefit concert supports the work of the rebuilding efforts of the St. Bernard Project and MAZON, who will direct any funds directly back to three of our current grantees: the Second Harvest Food Bank; Just the Right Attitude (a grass roots mobilizing effort for food security); and the New Orleans Food and Farm Network.
Why the timing of this concert? It coincides with the realities of the 4th Anniversary of Katrina and the destruction it left in its midst. MAZON has never walked away from its commitment to this region: we pumped in well over a million dollars immediately after Katrina to help stabilize the food and nutritional network that is still trying to recover today. I feel we are in the social fabric of this community and that Jewish and gentiles alike standing shoulder to shoulder have made amazing strides. However, over the last 2 years, another man-made disaster struck this community: the economic meltdown and the Great Recession. Jobs are scarce; the middle class is now being served on the bread lines. I heard the account of one 4 year old child from an upper class family who was taken to the Food Bank to do some volunteer work with her family, turning to her mother after the experience and saying: ”… but mom, they looked exactly like us.” How true her words ring. We are all in this together.
So, strangely enough, the benefit concert was timed just as the President made his first visit to New Orleans since taking office. He pledged to make the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast a priority, but he whisked through the city for a visit that one Louisiana congressman described as a “drive-through daiquiri summit”. The President spent a grand total of 3 hours and 45 minutes in the Crescent City. Way more time was spent, no doubt, on his failed attempt to to get the Olympic bid to come to Chicago. So next time, Mr. President, spend a little time in the hoods that never got rebuilt. Witness a surreal picture of things frozen in time: an abandoned school; a Food Bank who has lost about 1/3 of their donors who never came back. And with all this surrealism, witness the spirit of the people who make this their Alamo; like Sister Mary Lou Specha who runs a Cafe called “Reconcile”, to train at-risk youth to be waiters, food chefs, and food growers. Or spend time with Daphne Derven from the New Orleans Food and Farm Network who runs a program to turn pocket abandon sites into productive food producing sourcing for the local community. Or spend time with Natalie Jayroe who runs the Food Bank and has lead the charge to provide food to over 200 agencies in New Orleans and southern Louisiana.
But in the end, until we see government feeding its own masses, we will relish and rejoice at the charity benefits that such giving souls as Neshama, Ellis Marsalis and the Green Pastures Choir provide so that children and families can survive.
H. Eric Schockman is the President of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.