By Beth Lipschutz, Regional Director of Youth Engagement, NFTY MV
For the past 3 summers, I’ve had the honor of planning and leading the URJ Mitzvah Corps trip through the South. We’ve spent time in Jackson, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans. We had the opportunity to learn about these different communities and listen to stories to provide context around civil rights, civil liberties, racial justice, criminal justice reform, and why these issues are important to us as Jewish participants.
One of the most powerful experiences we’ve had in NoLa is visiting the Lower 9th Ward Living Museum. The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum was co-founded by Dr. Caroline Heldman and Ian Breckenridge-Jackson in 2011 in response to the painfully slow rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. They have engaged in rebuilding efforts since Katrina and are now turning their efforts to remembering and celebrating the vibrant history and culture of this neighborhood. Only one in five residents have been able to return to their homes, so many stories will be lost if we as a community fail to actively remember. The Living Museum features oral histories from community members, exhibits of key events from the history of the Lower Ninth Ward, and runs cultural and community events that entertain and educate. The museum is located in a converted house in an otherwise residential area of the Lower 9th Ward. We had the opportunity to walk through the house learning about the story of Katrina from the perspective of the residents of the Lower 9th Ward. This was an eye opening experience as the story of Katrina most of us know often didn’t include first hand accounts of people in the neighborhood that was most affected by the hurricane.
Another unique experience was just outside of the city of New Orleans at the Whitney Plantation. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. Through exhibits, memorial artwork and restored buildings and hundreds of first-person slave narratives, visitors to Whitney we gained a unique perspective on the lives of Louisiana’s enslaved people.
These two museums focused on different time periods in the history of New Orleans, but both museums did so through storytelling. Judaism teaches us the power and importance of retelling stories. Our Jewish values guide us in listening to stories of others to learn how to treat each other with more compassion. Our group left New Orleans not only having more empathy for folks in the local community still dealing with systemic oppression, but also with ideas to help work towards more justice and equity in each of our local communities.
Are you a teen in St. Louis who is interested in visiting these two museums as well as engaging meaningful work with grassroots organizations that are rebuilding and improving physical infrastructure, social services, opportunities for youth, and the energy that defines a culture? Learn more and register for Alternative Spring Break!