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Baton Rouge Temple Shuts Shelter, Places Longtime Rabbi on Paid Leave

A Baton Rouge, La., synagogue has closed its shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina and placed its rabbi on administrative leave. The board of Congregation B’nai Israel asked Rabbi Barry Weinstein last week to take a paid leave of absence for an unspecified period.

Weinstein had led B’nai Israel’s effort to house dozens of evacuees who had fled their devastated Gulf Coast homes in the wake of Katrina. The synagogue shelter, in turn, had received an outpouring of donations and supplies from Jewish communities and individuals around the country that had heard of the congregation’s efforts.

The degree to which the shelter closing and the rabbi’s leave are linked is a matter of disagreement. But the developments suggest another unexpected fallout from a natural disaster that has disrupted so many lives.

The turmoil has divided and confused a small congregation that for nearly two weeks had come together to help displaced victims.

“This has been very painful for everyone,” said Victor Sachse, the president of B’nai Israel, a 230-family Reform congregation that traces its roots to 1858.

Synagogue officials say the decision to ask Weinstein to take a leave was related to a personal matter and was not directly connected to the shelter issue.

But some of the rabbi’s supporters charge that a few influential members of the community who opposed using the synagogue as a shelter had pressured temple officers to act.

The supporters expressed dismay that the shelter has been closed and Weinstein has been barred from the synagogue.

The last of an estimated 100 evacuees who had found refuge at B’nai Israel left the premises Monday, Sachse said.

He said the synagogue would serve as a base of operations for medical personnel who had come to the area for relief efforts. He also said it would continue facilitating relocation efforts for victims from other shelters and would help fund transportation costs for people needing bus and plane tickets.

Within the B’nai Israel community there are differing opinions on whether it was the shelter itself or the way it was handled that led to its sudden closing and the rabbi’s paid leave.

The shelter was created on Aug. 31 as New Orleans was being submerged under water and beleaguered residents were fleeing their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While walking his dogs in Baton Rouge, Weinstein came across a family of evacuees at a nearby gas station. After consulting with Sachse, who got the approval of the synagogue board, the rabbi brought the family to B’nai Israel and a makeshift shelter was created.

Weinstein and volunteers provided bedding, food and counseling. During the next several days, they arranged for several families to find new homes as far away as Miami and San Diego.

Recognized in the community as a leader in interfaith and humanitarian efforts, Weinstein, 63, used his contacts to arrange transportation, reunite families and bring in relief supplies.

One of the families who took shelter at B’nai Israel expressed profound gratitude to the community.

“I never knew a place like that could make you feel so at home,” Delilah Forbes said Monday night from a California hotel room where she had arrived just hours before. Forbes and her extended family plan to make a new home in San Diego.

“They fed us. People came and cooked, and they brought us clothes,” she said, still emotional from the ordeal her family had been through. “Anything we asked for, we got. It was just really beautiful.”

Sachse said the initial plan had been to provide housing for a few days. He said the synagogue was not equipped to be a shelter — people staying there had to shower across the street at a Catholic school — and the focus was on helping victims resettle elsewhere.

But with the shelter garnering national headlines and Weinstein and volunteers reaching out to the community, more evacuees continued to arrive — as did donations of money, food and clothing from mostly Jewish institutions around the country.

As the effort intensified, cracks within the synagogue community appeared, according to several people involved.

With few exceptions, the community initially supported the shelter, which housed mostly poor black families, Sachse said. A few Jewish families also found refuge there.

But within days, Sachse said, “we were overwhelmed.”

Weinstein “desperately wanted to help everyone we could,” Sachse noted, but “his reach exceeded our capabilities.”

The situation “frankly created some pretty real tensions,” said Sachse, who spent several nights sleeping at the synagogue.

Some of those active in the shelter effort said bigotry may have played a role in the opposition. They cited instances in which a few synagogue members said it was inappropriate for the evacuees to participate in Friday night services. There was also some opposition to tents being set up on the synagogue lawn to house the overflow of evacuees seeking shelter.

But Sachse rejected the bigotry charge.

“There were a few congregants who would have preferred not to shelter people” for reasons such as liability, “but it was never a racial issue,” he said.

Marc Samuels, a congregant active in the shelter effort, expressed dismay that, in his assessment, a few influential congregants had succeeded in shutting down the shelter.

Echoing a view expressed by others, Samuels said he strongly believed that the move against Weinstein “was taken to shut down the shelter.”

The conflict with Weinstein came to a head last week when, according to several accounts, he lost his temper with a past president of the congregation.

Weinstein, who declined to speak about the turn of events, has been in counseling for several years, according to sources close to him. By all accounts, at the time of his confrontation with the former synagogue official he had gone nearly a week without sleep and was under tremendous stress.

On Sept. 6, Sachse convened an emergency meeting of the board, which voted unanimously to ask Weinstein to take a paid leave, several officers said. Sachse said no pressure had been brought to bear on the board.

The next day, Weinstein was asked to leave the premises and his key to the synagogue was taken away.

Sachse said board members were acting “in the interest of both the synagogue and the rabbi.”

A Sept. 7 letter to congregants, stating, “the board of trustees has accepted Rabbi Weinstein’s decision to take a voluntary leave of absence,” angered some synagogue members.

“Yes, he was overtired and needed rest,” said Cindie Lang, a congregant who serves as a cantorial soloist, teacher and bar/bat mitzvah tutor at B’nai Israel.

“But if a member of your community is hurting, you support him, you encourage him; he shouldn’t be ostracized and locked out” the way the rabbi was, she said.

The question remains: Would Weinstein have been placed on leave if he hadn’t set up a shelter at the synagogue?

“The only linkage between what we did and the sheltering was the hurricane and the way he reacted to it, not the sheltering itself,” Sachse said, suggesting that the concerns about the rabbi predated the shelter.

But others say it’s hard to escape linking the rabbi’s dismissal to the shelter issue.

“If nothing else, the stress was everywhere; our life as we know it is different,” said Lang, one of the few synagogue members willing to speak on the record. “People are at their wit’s end and are not acting with as much patience and compassion as they would have.”

Sources close to Weinstein say that after serving the congregation for 23 years, he’s distraught over what has happened.

B’nai Israel’s leadership is now trying to look to the future.

Sachse said lay volunteers will lead services for the short term and that they are seeking a rabbi to conduct High Holiday services.

No one knows how Weinstein’s situation will play itself out.

“He’s still under contract” for three more years, Sachse said. Whether he’s out just temporarily or for good “depends on the rabbi.”

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