Tikkun Olam

Voices from the field

Asking 'What Can I Do?'

By Dan Tatar
September 19, 2016

For the past week, I have been surveying the contents of every room I enter: my home, my office, even stores I visit. I take notice of everything below chest level as I walk through – chairs, tables, vacation photo albums, children’s drawings, everything. It took decades to acquire all of these memories and possessions.

Then I imagine all of it soaking under water. Destroyed. Lost forever.

This was the aftermath I saw in Baton Rouge, where I was recently volunteering with NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster.  Every morning, we entered a new home, hauled out everything left inside, and then gutted down to the studs. Towering mounds of crumbled drywall, rotted wood, clothes, furniture, and spoiled food formed up and down the curbs. Ruined personal possessions were on display in front of every house, stretching blocks upon blocks, lining the curbs like a street of faded possibility.

Among these piles and the mold and smells and noise, it is easy to forget that all of this represents a person’s life. You’d sometimes catch a glimpse of a waterlogged photo album or a “birthday growth chart” penciled on a now moldy wall.  We saved what we could, as best we could, but for the most part every resident was starting over.  

As we experience Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, this recent self-reflection is rather poignant. Situations like these remind us of our own mortality, what’s most important in life, and if we are truly being the best person each of us can be. Congregations gather and recite "Unetaneh Tokef,” declaring that "penitence, prayer, and righteous acts avert the severe decree."  Righteous acts: the definition of tzedakah.  

The volunteers around me left work and family in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Sarasota, or interrupted their backpacking adventures along the Appalachian Trail and Mississippi River.  We differed in age, religious background, and occupation.  Within this great diversity, however, was great unity: each person recognized others who needed help. They looked at themselves and asked “What can I do?” In one month, over 300 volunteers clocked in over 6000 hours, helping 40 families start over.

The flood waters receded weeks ago, and left the national news cycle shortly thereafter.  But as with most natural disasters, the local community will be affected for years.  In my own self-reflection, this experience empowered me to love harder and to more fully value what really matters.  I left with more confidence (especially in the usage of hammers and flatbars) and more humanity.  As a dad, I hope my reflection and action serves as an example to my young daughter. I hope she will recognize when someone needs help, and ask “What can I do?”

Chag Sameach.