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Baton Rouge Jews deal with influx

Cots at Louisiana State University await evacuees of Hurricane Katrina in Baton Rouge, La.  (Liz Roll/FEMA)

Cots at Louisiana State University await evacuees of Hurricane Katrina in Baton Rouge, La. (Liz Roll/FEMA)

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 8 (JTA) — In a trendy Italian bistro called Semolina’s on the south side of Louisiana’s normally sleepy capital, Dr. Juan Jorge Gershanik last Sunday night shouted his dinner order to a pretty young waitress above the din of boisterous patrons and piped-in bluesy music. With paternal good humor and Latino charm, he asked the waitress for her name — “Rebecca,” she said with a nervous smile — and jokingly invited her to sit down and join his party. “Don’t worry,” Gershanik, 63, said reassuringly, his light blue eyes flashing, “I’ll call my wife and she’ll say it’s OK. And if you don’t like me, it’s all right, I have a handsome young son who is a doctor that you might want to meet.” Despite his relaxed and jovial manner, Gershanik, an Argentinian Jew who moved to the United States in 1966, was coming off what he readily admitted was a week he would rather forget. A New Orleans resident since 1979 who belongs to the city’s historic Touro Synagogue, he now was living with other tired and frazzled evacuees of Hurricane Katrina in the crowded Comfort Suites Inn in Baton Rouge. His home in uptown New Orleans likely had been rendered permanently uninhabitable, he said, and his wife, Anna Ester, and their three children were in Florida, staying with relatives. All of their possessions were probably gone, Gershanik said, and he was planning to meet this week with a real estate agent to possibly buy a house in Baton Rouge, which is approximately 85 miles northwest of New Orleans. “I feel like I was born to be a refugee,” he said, laughing. “I’m a Yiddishe boy from the Argentinian countryside, and now I’m a refugee again. But it’s OK, I’ll be all right.” Like many of the estimated 500 to 1,000 Jews from New Orleans staying in Baton Rouge after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, Gershanik remained optimistic, despite the pervasive devastation and sense of hopelessness, anger and loss. “New Orleans will be back, stronger than ever,” he said. “If you know the people there, we’re too in love with the city to let it die. Our Jewish community cares so much about each other and the city. We’re an extended family, and so many of our people are the leaders of the town. I think we’ll be OK.” Although streets teemed with more cars than usual and military helicopters frequently whizzed by in the air, a deceiving sense of calm hung over Baton Rouge earlier this week. Not even a presidential visit or the doubling of its population — many of the newcomers were evacuees being treated at local hospitals or living in makeshift facilities — seemed to indicate that life was particularly abnormal in this historic town on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. “Don’t be fooled,” advised Rabbi Stanton Zamek of Baton Rouge’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, “Things might seem normal, but they’re not. We’re all going crazy. It might not look like it, but it’s a state of emergency.” While many Americans around the country pointed fingers and contemplated blame in the preparation and response to Katrina, nearly everyone in Baton Rouge — which sustained relatively little damage during the hurricane — interviewed for this article said the time was not right for second-guessing and accusations. “There has to be an accounting later,” Zamek said. “There must be, for a disaster of this magnitude. But people here right now are being practical and focusing on what needs to get done.” Like the rabbi, Gershanik said he feels federal authorities could have handled the situation better, “but it’s so easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Who could have imagined such a catastrophe? We heard so much about the possibilities [of hurricanes and flooding], we became immune to the warnings. Nobody really knew what was going on.” With the help of their approximately 1,500 co-religionists in Baton Rouge, many New Orleans Jews have been placed temporarily in the homes of relatives, friends and strangers, as well as in hotels and shelters, until they get their lives in order. Some have purchased houses or leased apartments in the Baton Rouge area. “We don’t yet know if people are going to stay here,” said Ralph Bender, treasurer of Baton Rouge’s Jewish federation. “Nobody knows what they’re going to do. Baton Rouge will never be the same. But it’ll never be New Orleans either.” Other members of the New Orleans Jewish community, estimated at 9,500-10,000, were living in Houston, Miami and around the country. Baton Rouge’s Jewish federation and two synagogues, B’nai Israel and Beth Shalom, are assisting Jewish and non-Jewish evacuees by providing housing and basic materials, as well as getting family members in contact with each other. While B’nai Israel is acting as a shelter for about 25 evacuees (most of whom are African-American non-Jews), Beth Shalom is serving as a placement, distribution, coordination and medical treatment center. Volunteers from both Reform congregations are working around the clock to assist evacuees, leaders say. “I’m really proud of our people,” Zamek said. “You call and say, ‘I need this now,’ and they respond. People are here all day long, scrounging for supplies, taking people into their homes. It’s really amazing.” Beth Morrison, a B’nai Israel congregant and religious school teacher, admitted that having her temple transformed into a homeless shelter overnight is a strange experience. She and her family members are volunteering at the shelter, helping sort supplies, feed residents and play with refugee children. “I’m just glad we’re so close [to New Orleans] and sustained so little damage so we can help these people,” said Morrison, who like many other Baton Rouge Jews has family members currently living with her. “I hope we can continue to do this as long as we need to. Everyone here is traumatized,” she said. “As a Jewish community, we can’t leave people on the side of the road. Every life is precious.” Last Sunday, a group of Baton Rouge Jewish volunteers participated in a rescue mission with law enforcement agents to save elderly Jews still in New Orleans. About 15 people, Jews and non-Jews, were rescued, though some individuals refused to leave. Richard Lipsey, a prominent member of Baton Rouge’s Jewish community who organized the mission, said other rescue efforts are in the works. “We’re trying to help, person to person, as much as we can,” said Donna Sternberg, one of the founders of Baton Rouge’s 36-year-old Jewish federation and a member of the national board of the American Israel Political Action Committee. Jewish evacuees “are reassured because there’s Jewish support here and in Memphis and Houston. They know there’s an address for them. “It’s just all of the human stories and tragedies,” she said, shaking her head. “Everything is down in the city, you can’t even go there. There is no [Jewish] community there. There’s nothing left. It’s just total dislocation and separation.” Her husband Hans Sternberg, a longtime prominent Baton Rouge businessman, said, “I think the Jewish community here will increase, at least for the High Holidays. Baton Rouge is made for growth, and it will be able to absorb all of this. Everyone is pitching in here, it’s wonderful.” Sternberg said many of the Jewish evacuees, like virtually all of Katrina’s refugees, are still numb and in a state of shock. “These people lost homes, relatives were missing who are now found. Children need schools, you name it. We’ve seen a few tears. They’re stoic, in disbelief, but they’re determined and strong. “We’re all heartbroken about New Orleans. We had a lot of friends and experiences there,” he said. “But it will come back — definitely. It’ll take a while. If they mobilized like they should have before the hurricane, it wouldn’t have been taken over by thugs. It was handled badly. That stuff didn’t have to happen.” Last Sunday afternoon, the Sternbergs’ son, Erich, who is president of Baton Rouge’s Jewish federation, huddled in his den with other community leaders, listening to a conference call with other Jewish leaders around the country, discussing the condition and welfare of New Orleans Jewry. At that point, Sternberg said reports indicated that two Jews — a pair of nursing home residents — had died in the hurricane. An unknown number of Jews remained, he said, some of whom were refusing to leave their homes, largely because of fears of looting. With phones ringing continuously and constant e-mails, the Sternbergs’ den was serving as a command central of sorts for Baton Rouge Jewry’s efforts. Stacks of papers, with information and reports about New Orleans’ Jewish community, were scattered on desks and floors. “I’ve been doing this for four days non-stop, and I’m a volunteer. We have a business with over 100 employees, and I haven’t been to work in four days. This is all crazy,” said Sternberg, president of a life insurance company, looking weary and unshaven. “I’ve barely talked to my wife in three days. “Right now,” he said, “we don’t know what we need to do. We don’t have all the numbers. I don’t know what our needs will be in two days, much less in a month. But right now, every Jew in Baton Rouge is doing something to help.” With an annual fund-raising campaign of around $250,000, the Baton Rouge federation’s leadership voted this week to immediately allocate reserve money — around $50,000 — for relief needs. They also were analyzing how to allocate money from the federation’s $400,000 endowment fund for such purposes. “We just want to save lives and help people put their lives together,” federation treasurer Ralph Bender said. “We’ll do what we can, including absorb people.” Irving and Carol Lise Rosen are typical of the Jewish evacuees now living in Baton Rouge. The Rosens, who happened to be on vacation in the Florida Panhandle at the time of the hurricane and subsequent flooding, moved in with their daughter, Edie Bender, and her family, with only the clothes in their suitcases. Senior citizens who spent their entire lives in New Orleans, they hope to return to the city eventually. “Our dear friends are spread all over the place, and we have a horrible feeling in the deep pits of our stomachs that we’ll never see them again,” said Carol Rosen, a retired entrepreneur and congregant at New Orleans’ Temple Sinai. “We suspect our house is dry, but we can’t get back to it. It’s not safe. So we’re refugees for the time being,” she said. “It’s not pleasant, but we’re lucky to have family here and a place to live. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to New Orleans. It’s going to take years, and I don’t know if it will ever recover,” she said. “But we’re going back. We have too many ties there. It’s our home. When will our lives return to normalcy? We have to pray for the best.” Bender see a silver lining, however. “My eight-year-old daughter is getting to spend quality time with her grandparents,” she said. “My parents feel like they’re imposing, but I’m so glad I can be here for them. I don’t where they’d be otherwise.” Although his wife and daughter evacuated to Pensacola, Fla., before Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Allan Bissinger decided to ride out the storm at home because of his telecommunications business. After several days of rising water in his home, Bissinger, who is incoming president of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, swam out of his house, was picked up by a boat, reached dry land and eventually caught a ride to Baton Rouge. He currently is living in an apartment arranged for him by the Baton Rouge federation, and he plans to pay his company’s employees until money runs out. “I’m fourth-generation and I’m committed to New Orleans,” Bissinger said. “That’s where I live, and I’ll go back when I can.” During the hurricane and its aftermath, he said, he didn’t witness any of the looting, rape or other crimes reported by the media. Nor did he see floating corpses. “I just saw a lot of goodness. People were very humane,” he said. “But I’ll just never forget that foul-smelling water.” The New Orleans federation currently is working out of Houston, but Bissinger feels many Jews from his hometown are settling in Baton Rouge “as a staging area to eventually go back. It’ll probably take six months to a year.” Bissinger said the whereabouts of all of New Orleans’ Jews, as well as the condition of the city’s seven synagogues and other Jewish infrastructure, is unknown. But he said he believes that most Jews in New Orleans fared well, especially compared to other groups, such as the people stuck inside the Superdome and the city’s convention center. “The best thing that people can do for us is to take in our people for the immediate future while we rebuild our community,” he said. “We’re going to need help finding a sense of stability. Long-range, it’s about financial support to help the lower economic people in our community. But we need to re-establish the Jewish community. “We’re determined to rebuild. New Orleans will be a whole new city, with a new philosophy and way of living,” he said. “I just hope the base — the people of the city — comes back, including the Jewish community.” Among the evacuees, Gershanik’s story is, arguably, one of the most unusual, dramatic and inspirational. A neonatalogist, he was working at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center when Katrina landed. At first, he said, “We knew we had to transport the babies to another area, but we didn’t think there would be a problem. But then the water was rising in the streets and elevators weren’t working right. We were getting anxious, and the families were getting anxious. The heat was hard to bear, and we realized we had to airlift the babies to Baton Rouge.” After a good deal of struggling and coordinating, Gershanik and other medical personnel brought 16 premature babies and their battery-operated incubators to the hospital’s heli-pad. When a pilot finally landed after 90 minutes and told him that he had only been instructed to rescue adults on rooftops in the chaos of New Orleans, Gershanik said he responded, “Look, these babies won’t be around much longer unless you take them.” His argument convinced the pilot, he said. Because two of the babies who weighed two pounds or less were at a critical stage, Gershanik and a nurse wrapped them in blankets and held them close to their bodies during the flight, while constantly pumping oxygen into their lungs with hand-compression bags “We took off in a three-seat helicopter, and I told myself, ‘If this baby lives, I’ll never complain about anything else again,’ ” he said. “The only way I could tell if the baby was still alive was to pinch him. But he was fine. Touching the heli-pad [at Women’s Hospital in Baton Rouge] was one of the best times of my life. It felt like a year, but it had taken 35 minutes. All of the babies were fine, and we let all of the parents back at the hospital know that they were fine.” Despite his actions in helping to save 16 young lives, Gershanik shrugged off accolades. “The real heroes are the people of New Orleans who will have the faith to rebuild our city,” he said, “and I think the Jewish people will lead the pack. I just feel so lucky to be living in this country.” The old cliche is that for every two Jews there are three opinions. One could say that the rule applies now to the small Jewish community of Baton Rouge, even during this time of tremendous outpouring, benevolence and urgency. Some in the community, including B’nai Israel’s longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Barry Weinstein, said earlier this week that they had mixed feelings about the rescue mission by Jewish volunteers and law enforcement agents. Though non-Jews were rescued in the operation, its primary objective from the outset was to save Jewish individuals on a list given to the Baton Rouge Jewish federation by New Orleans Jewish families. Weinstein and others said they also feared that a Sept. 5 article about the mission in the city’s daily newspaper, The Advocate, will fan anti-Semitism in a town with a long history of tolerance toward Jews and other minorities. “What, we only save Jews, and then we write about it in the paper?” Weinstein asked. “We do it with public servants, with public money? Jews only for Jews, and we let the rest linger in the swamps? Jews first? That’s not for me. No, you get everyone. We have an obligation.” But Richard Lipsey, the Jewish businessman and activist who organized the mission, and others insisted that it was a righteous and noble endeavor that saved lives. “We had the names, addresses of people — elderly Jews — that people wanted us to save,” he said. “We simply tried to get those people and anyone else out — black, Jewish, Christian. But the list was Jewish, even though we had the names of some priests and nuns as well. We’re rescuing everyone we can, but obviously we’re trying to save relatives of the people we know. “Yes, we’re looking out for our own,” Lipsey said. “But if we can help others, we will.” In addition, he said, the law enforcement officials involved in the mission were “off-duty members of the SWAT team who offered their services and had other business in New Orleans. They had the means, the boats to get in, and we had the specific names and addresses. This isn’t cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-Indians. People needed saving.” Said Rabbi Zamek: “No one else is going to go and rescue these elderly Jews. They will die or be moved forcibly by the National Guard. It’s legitimate for us to be realistic in our goals. We have very limited resources. The guys who went on that convoy wore bulletproof vests. They risked their lives.” In addition, Rabbi Weinstein criticized Baton Rouge’s Jews, including members of his own congregation, for not pitching in more at the shelter in his synagogue. “Most of our volunteers are of color and Christian,” he said. “I’ve been rabbi here for 22 years and I love my congregation, but I might have to stay for another 22 years because the teachings of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah are not sinking in. “We have 1,500 Jews in this city, and they’re not pitching in enough. They’re having [Jewish evacuees] over, OK, but the Jews of New Orleans are well-heeled. They’re OK. Take an hour and help out here. “We’re saving lives here,” he said. “We’re putting them up, and we’re putting them on planes to Miami, Texas, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and we’re paying for everything for them for a year. Anyone can do it, but we are doing it, our little shul. I’m in this up to my neck.” Rabbi Zamek strongly disagreed with the idea that Baton Rouge Jews weren’t doing enough. “Our congregants are volunteering at makeshift shelters, at hospitals, helping with supplies. It’s not like my people and those at B’nai Israel are not trying to help the general community. But we’re all doing it in a way that makes sense, not just creating a shelter that is inadequate. My people are responding when we call. “We all have the impulse to save the world, but we grab a corner of it and try to help,” Zamek said. “It’s a balance. But our people have heard the prophetic message. They’re all over the place. I don’t know anyone who’s doing nothing.” That act of helping, Zamek said, is the manner in which the divine presence manifests itself. “I don’t believe that God throws hurricanes at people, or that we can pray them away,” he said. “Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon in this part of the world. It’s not evil, it doesn’t have a will. It’s a tragedy. But where God is is in the way we respond. We are moral beings, and people are God’s hands. We see people as God’s hands in the world.” Among the Jews of Baton Rouge, he said, “God’s hands are busy working.” New Orleans native Henry Johnson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, agrees. Johnson and his wife, Navilla, were rescued by the volunteer convoy and placed in a Beth Shalom congregant’s home for a couple of days before traveling to their daughter’s home in Fort Washington, Md. He hopes to return to New Orleans next week. Standing amid the bustle of relief workers and evacuees last Tuesday evening at Baton Rouge’s airport, Johnson said he appreciated the Jewish community’s work. “The people, they were wonderful to us,” he said. “They took such good care of us. Made sure we were comfortable and OK. I’ll never forget it. It was just wonderful.”