NEW YORK, Sept. 20 (JTA) — When Hurricane Ivan tore through coastal Alabama, Mississippi and western Florida late last week, synagogues in the South that usually are packed for Rosh Hashanah were shuttered for the holiday. The Category 4 hurricane swept through the area, ripping the roofs off of houses, tearing the limbs from trees and causing widespread flooding, devastation and at least 52 deaths. But, synagogues in the South seem to have been spared the brunt of Ivan’s fury. Canceled services seemed to be the largest Jewish casualty of the storm. Most synagogues reported little to no structural damage and congregants seemed to have stayed out of harm’s way. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” said Rabbi Donald Kunstadt, of Spring Hill Avenue Temple, Alabama’s oldest synagogue, a Reform congregation founded in Mobile in 1844. “As far as our members, everyone’s healthy and OK. We had no power, but our large stained-glass windows, fortunately, were not damaged,” the rabbi told JTA Monday by telephone. Outside the immediate path of the storm, which by Saturday had made it to the Northeast in the form of severe thunderstorms, some congregations opened their doors — and offered free seats — to Jews evacuating in the face of the hurricane. Temple Shalom in Lafayette, La., hosted about 25 people from metropolitan New Orleans fleeing the storm, many of whom had to make last-minute arrangements to spend the holiday in congregants’ homes. Some barely made it before Rosh Hashanah, enduring up to 10 hours of traffic on what normally is a two-hour drive from New Orleans to Lafayette. “It was nice to be able to provide the service for those evacuees and give them a little comfort from the storm,” said Sam Masur, president of the Reform congregation. “All went well.” Despite a curfew in New Orleans on Sept. 15, erev Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yossie Nemes, of the Chabad Center in Metairie, La., a New Orleans suburb, said he decided to keep his synagogue open. Thirteen people showed up for services that night, and about 70 turned out on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, significantly fewer than normal. “It was about half of the usual crowd, but some members of other synagogues came,” Nemes said, including the president of an Orthodox synagogue in town and the immediate past president of a local Conservative synagogue. “In a way we had a unifying service,” he said. “Our cantor didn’t make it, but there was definitely high spirits, and people felt fortunate that we were spared. It was a very diverse community. Something good came out of a difficult circumstance for the community.” Making the most of a difficult situation, Kunstadt said his congregation in Mobile celebrated Rosh Hashanah a day late, on Saturday. “We had a new year’s celebration on Shabbat morning — our own abbreviated version of Rosh Hashanah, which was very nice,” Kunstadt said. The service, which included the shofar blasts, drew a crowd of about 150; the holiday services usually bring in some 400 people, he said. B’nai Israel synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Pensacola, Fla., suffered light damage as the eye of the hurricane passed by. Many congregants had left town, and those who stayed remained hunkered down Sept. 16. The synagogue held second-day services on Rosh Hashanah, once the storm had passed, but only eight people showed up out of a usual 200. “Ivan was not too kind to us, so we had to do what we had to do,” said Rabbi Israel Vana, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “We survived it. We had a very sketchy service. But we’re doing okay. We’re in good spirits.”
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Uriel Heilman is JTA's managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA's editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.
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