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Schisms That Surfaced During Katrina Point to the Need for Soul-searching

On the Days of Awe we stand humbled before God. Our belongings and our accomplishments do not ultimately protect us. We are mortal, finite and dependent. In our daily live, we often avoid facing this reality. We seek security through our work, our acquisitions, our power. The Days of Awe call us to strip ourselves of externals and to confront our humanness. We pray, “Shema Koleinu,” or “Hear our prayer,” for in our vulnerability we long for connection to the merciful one, to be held in the divine embrace. We exhort God, “Do not forsake us in our old age. When our powers fade, do not abandon us.” The poignancy of this plea is overwhelming, for in it, we give voice to our darkest fear: that we will be abandoned in our moment of greatest weakness. We dread the prospect of being old, helpless and neglected, even more, perhaps, than dying.

This year, we don’t need the prayer to remind us of this fear. For untold numbers of older people in New Orleans, the nightmare came to pass. Far from being revered and protected, elders were abandoned and victimized. The residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home, in St. Bernard Parish, waited for days for help that never came. Despite their frantic efforts to save themselves, barricading doors with wheelchairs and bureaus, at least 31 drowned in the raging waters. Older people waiting on highway overpasses were left behind as younger, stronger evacuees rushed past them to fill buses headed toward safety. Elders in shelters became prey for thieves and attackers. The safety of elders could not be assured, as was so tragically evidenced by the explosion of a bus carrying elderly evacuees fleeing Hurricane Rita.

Amid the darkness and chaos, there were acts of heroism and compassion, including the near-miraculous evacuation of all of the residents, staff and family members of Woldenberg Village, New Orleans’ Jewish home for the elderly. With the help of Jewish communities around North America, all have been resettled in Dallas. Yet sadly, these sparks of goodness seem to have been the exception, not the rule.

We are so tiny and frail in the face of nature’s unyielding force. Even more shattering, though, is the realization of our nation’s moral frailty. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the vast poverty, racism and deprivation so many of us manage to routinely ignore; it challenged our basic sense of the fairness and humanity of our society.

In these Days of Awe, as we take stock, we ask, “Ma anu, me chayenu,” or, “What are we? What are our lives? It is a truism, attributed variously to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav; Gandhi; and the 19th-century women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that a society can be judged by the way it treats its eldest and most vulnerable members.

Among the shameful horrors we must now confront is our shocking neglect of the old. If we can forget elders in a crisis of this magnitude, it can only mean that they are forgotten every day. We must acknowledge that our society has failed this basic test of humanity.

How far we are from realizing the biblical commandment, “Rise up before the gray-haired, and bring splendor, “hiddur,” to the presence of the old.” (Leviticus 19:32)

What can we learn from this tragedy? How can we look toward the future? The Shema Koleinu prayer asks, “Aseh imanu ot l’tovah, or “Make us a sign of goodness.” Out of this shattering, may we become agents of repair. Let us confront blindness and insensitivity to poverty, age and frailty. Let us attend to the nearly one in four American Jews over 60 years old. Let us resolve that no older person should be abandoned or neglected. Let us reach out to the elders in our families, our neighborhoods, our synagogues, and our communities. Let us devote our personal and communal resources to ensure that our older parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends will be connected, honored and treasured.

We pray that God will be “our help and our comfort” as we ourselves must help and comfort. “Ki licha Adonai hochalnu,” “For in You, God, we place our hope.”

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the editor of the revised second edition of “Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources.”

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