by Rabbi Aaron Miller
New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a place with many religious people, but fewer pastors; countless houses of worship, but few churches. Most prayer in this rebuilding community takes place in what are known as “family churches,” where large family networks come together to pray. These refitted homes have been owned by the family for generations and serve as a church throughout the week. Families lead their own services, and as families gather every Sunday, these family churches become sacred space.
Through the generosity of the TOV (Tikkun Olam Values) Fund and the Charles S. Bresler TOV Center, Washington Hebrew Congregation sends cohorts of volunteers each year to lend a hand in hard-hit places around the country. These service opportunities, known as A.R.K (Acts of Religious Kindness) trips, bring volunteers to live and work in the communities they are serving and experience Jewish tradition through the lens of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Earlier this May, 21 young Jewish professionals traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward to live and work in the community and help bring the Lower Ninth, left under 15 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina, one step closer to recovery. In addition to planting more than 700 cypress trees and clearing the way for a new wetlands nursery, the group helped to restore a family church that had been swept away during the hurricane nearly eight years ago.
As our group woke up the Sunday of our trip, we could hear church singing from across the street. After a moment, we realized that it was coming from the family church we had been rebuilding, still very much under construction. The family still met there every week to pray. A member of our group asked why the family would meet in an unfinished building when they could meet in any one of their homes instead. We learned that the family had been meeting at that same spot, every Sunday, for decades. Even after Katrina hit and all that was left of the church was a concrete slab, the family still gathered at the foundation to pray. That spot had become a part of their family’s story.
This is why the family returned to their church, because even without air conditioning, even without walls, that place was full of meaning that no other place could have. It was at that spot where generations connected to each other, and more than anywhere else, connected with God. This is why the family returned week after week, year after year – because that space meant something to them that no other place else could.
Each of our stories is told through the places that connect us. As our patriarch Jacob fled the wrath of his murderous brother, he traversed the wilderness until he reached a place called Luz. There, out of exhaustion, he rested his head on a stone. That spot of earth sprang to life, and there, Jacob was transformed by a vision of God. From that moment on, this ordinary spot of earth was no longer called Luz, but Beit El, meaning “house of God.” The place remained just as unexceptional as it was before Jacob’s arrival, but that spot of earth became a beit El, a house of God, because of what it meant to Jacob and what it has come to mean in the story of our people.
Places tell our story. As we recall life’s milestones, each one of them happened in a place which, from that moment onward, means something different to us than it did before. Maybe it is the restaurant, turned forever sacred, when we got down on one knee to propose to our beloved. Maybe it is the hospital room, once white and sterile, turned forever sacred when there we gave birth. It might even be the cemetery, once scenic and tranquil, turned forever sacred when there we grieved the loss of a loved one. Sacred spaces are those that connect us. The places we leave having been transformed.
For this past cohort of 21 young Jewish professionals, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward became such a place. The power of these immersive experiences is more than the impact we have on the communities we serve. Like the family church, serving in the Lower Ninth connected us to each other and even connected us to God. It was in New Orleans where 21 former strangers became close friends, and it was there where we discovered how the Jewish people connect to God by connecting to those in need. The Lower Ninth Ward became a sacred place in each of our stories. We came together to make a small change in the world, and we left having changed something in ourselves.
Aaron Miller is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.