Flashback: Shabbat Katrina

The following essay was written in September of 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast. I’m posting it now because themes of charity loom large at this time of year. I think that we are faced with a crisis that is at once larger and more intangible than a hurricane. There is no single geographic area to which we can point, no state border across which you can find “aid recipients”. There is no football stadium large enough to hold the people who are struggling at this time in our history.

We here at The Edible Torah are committed to supporting Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger. It would be wonderful if you joined with us and made a donation to that organization. Even if Mazon isn’t your thing, it behooves us all to find a cause and help support it.

That’s not just a message for “this season”, it’s a message for all seasons.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978)

It was an uncomfortable Shabbat. The sense of sanctuary we normally enjoyed, the suspension of work-week pressures and petty stresses was absent. We all knew why, but even that knowledge didn’t comfort us. Our group of friends – a collection of families who get together for food, talking, food, socializing, food, Torah study and also a little food — had been struggling all evening with what we thought about hurricane Katrina and the victims left in the wake of the disaster.

After dinner had been cleared, coffee served, and the kids had beaten their customary hasty retreat to the basement, we turned our attention to Re’eh, the portion for the week. Even though they are found near the end of the portion, the words seemed to scream at us from the page, shocking us back to our earlier conversation.

(Deut 15:7) When, in a settlement in the land that God your Lord is giving you, any of your brothers is poor, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother. 15:8 Open your hand generously, and extend to him any credit he needs to take care of his wants. 15:9 Be very careful that you not have an irresponsible idea and say to yourself, ‘The seventh year is approaching, and it will be the remission year.’ You may then look unkindly at your impoverished brother, and not give him anything. If he then complains to God about you, you will have a sin. 15:10  Therefore, make every effort to give him, and do not feel bad about giving it, since God your Lord will then bless you in all your endeavors, no matter what you do. 15:11 The poor will never cease to exist in the land, so I am commanding you to open your hand generously to your poor and destitute brother in your land.

Abandoning all pretense of Torah study, we began to debate. What could we do – here, now, with the group and resources we had? We’re not a rich bunch, to be sure. Nor is any of us politically well-connected. We don’t have skills that would warrant a road trip down to the gulf. It didn’t appear there were many choices.

Then one of the group got up and pointedly slapped a $100 bill into the Jar.

An old glass jar is always in the center of the Shabbat table, and over the course of the year it is filled with the money we empty out of our pockets as Shabbat begins.  Once a year this money is distributed to a variety of charities. We had started this tradition a few years ago, when everyone’s kids were too old and too savvy and too numerous to deal with at Chanukah. We wanted to use that time of year to teach about Tikkun Olam. So during the week of Chanukah all the families would gather, and everyone would talk about their charity of choice, and then the “under-18 crowd” would decide which groups should get the money and how much. It was a useful holiday-time lesson in tzedakah.

But here we were, 4 months away from Chanukah. The jar was full, but not as full as it would be. $100 had just dropped into it. As I said before, we’re not rich – this got our attention.

“We can do something now,” the contributor said from his perch on the couch. “We can do something later, too. But here, right now, we can do something. What’s it going to be?”

“Something now” was a $400 donation to The Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Our jar is empty, but we’re building it back up week by week.

“Something later” depends on you. Our group is challenging yours. Like our group, maybe you aren’t rich, or politically connected, or gifted with life saving skills in times of disaster. But we’re betting you can pull together a small donation. Take this opportunity to teach others that each one of us can change the world.