#OurCoast: Exploring Bayous, Rivers and Faith

05.11.2017 | In Community & Events, OurCoast
By Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, Oscar J. Tolmas Rabbinic Chair, Congregation Beth Israel

On a recent Monday morning, myself and some fellow New Orleans-area clergy had the privilege to explore some of the bayous, rivers, bays and barrier islands in the gulf coast area near Venice. Riding aboard a sturdy Lafitte skiff, piloted by the inimitable Richie Blink, we learned about local flora and fauna, activities of the very-present oil and gas companies, and what the different fishing vessels going past us had in their hold (including one boat that had a pile of sharks on the deck! Man, the world of non-kosher food is even larger than I thought!)

Capt. Richie Blink leads the group through the wetlands.

Perhaps most exigently, we learned about the future of the Mississippi River Delta region. We discussed the rapid loss of land and coastline. We learned about the history of the formation of the delta itself, and how the current levee system disrupts the process of river sediment helping to build land in the area. We also heard about the effects that the BP oil spill had, and continues to have, on both the cultural and biological life of the area.

Roseate Spoonbills fly through the wetlands.

The rabbis of the Jewish tradition understood that there are certain areas of life wherein the actions of the few influence the many. They describe this phenomenon in a well-known parable by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

A group of people were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath herself. The others said to her, "What are you sitting and doing?!" She replied, "What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?!" They said to her, "But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship!"

The irony of using such a parable to discuss a flood-prone area aside, the meaning of this story is apparent. The particular needs and wants of individual industries – whether oil and gas, shipping, fishing, or shrimping – as well as the leveeing of the river to protect local communities and economic infrastructures, have all contributed to a problem which now threatens to engulf a wide swath of the state and region. Because no particular group or industry is eager to massively change their way of doing things, then the whole area will suffer from land loss and flooding (not to mention the ill-effects relating to oil spills, etc.).

These topics are obviously very heavy and sad, but our tradition also tells us, "If you believe you can destroy, you must also believe that you can fix." And there is reason for hope. As we approached a barrier island populated by thousands of pelicans, Richie shared with us a story. On one trip he took his grandfather out into the gulf and observed the many pelicans. His grandfather noted that earlier in his own life, such a sight was rare; the abundant DDT in the ecosystem was causing pelican eggs to shatter, and population levels plummeted. But its banning has led to their resurgence. 

Pelicans on a Louisiana barrier island.

There are reasons to be hopeful about the gulf as well. The work of local organizations, such as Restore the Mississippi River Delta, in and of themselves, and their advocating for larger governmental solutions in helping to mitigate land loss and beginning to build land back up is inspiring. I look forward to continuing to learn more about this issue and raising awareness about it within the greater New Orleans Jewish community.

If your church, synagogue, mosque or temple would like to schedule a field trip, please contact Helen Rose Patterson via email at PattersonH@nwf.org.


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