Menu JTA Search

New Orleans Diaspora still functions

Though New Orleans´ historic Touro Synagogue survived Katrina, congregants were scattered across the country. ()

Though New Orleans´ historic Touro Synagogue survived Katrina, congregants were scattered across the country. ()

BALTIMORE, Sept. 15 (JTA) — Allan Bissinger was installed as president of the New Orleans Jewish Federation in an unconventional way last week. At the hour that the federation’s annual meeting was scheduled, he was having dinner in Baton Rouge with his predecessor, Bobby Garon, and several representatives of United Jewish Communities, the national organization for Jewish federations. In lieu of a gavel, Garon passed Bissinger the reins of leadership by handing him a napkin wrapped around silverware. Bissinger is living in Baton Rouge temporarily, the offices of the New Orleans federation are based in Houston and members of the New Orleans Jewish community are now living in 70 communities across the country. This is definitely not business as usual. When asked how the federation is handling this unprecedented situation, Sherri Tarr, the former Women’s Campaign and Young Leadership director, said, “With a lot of patience, not much sleep and lots of sechel,” or common sense. In the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, “pikuach nefesh,” the Jewish concept of the sanctity of a human life, was the federation’s first priority. Adam Bronstone, the federation’s community relations director, worked closely with the National Guard, directing it to the homes of stranded elderly Jewish shut-ins and helping in the evacuation to Houston of 300 residents of Woldenberg Village, a Jewish nursing home. Unfortunately, two residents died en route. Once everyone was evacuated, the focus shifted to finding out where people had relocated and helping people find their family and friends. Contact information for community members is updated daily on the federation’s Web site, www.jewishnola.com. Just managing the flood of communication — from those offering to help and those needing help — has been overwhelming. Eric Stillman, executive director of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, likens it to a “tsunami of communication, which has erupted from having 10,000 Jews scattered all across the country. Managing it requires a corps of volunteers from Houston and from New Orleans who have resettled in Houston.” The Jewish federation also is serving as a clearinghouse for community resources, matching people with available housing and jobs. As they enter the third week of the post-Katrina era, the federation and its agencies are shifting focus once again, moving beyond survival needs to assessing the damage and planning for the future. The Jewish communal professionals charged with running these agencies are also gaining focus as well. As Deena Gerber, executive director of New Orleans’ Jewish Family Service, who is now living in Atlanta with her son and his family, said, “Before, I couldn’t focus on anything for more than 15 seconds. Now I’m up to 60 seconds at a time.” Several factors make it so difficult to focus. The first is that the scale of the disaster is unprecedented in recent American history. How do you rebuild a community from scratch when its leaders are located 80 to 350 miles away, and you’re still looking for its members? Furthermore, the cloud of uncertainty is all-enveloping, and the Jewish community is not the master of its own fate. Though much of the community’s infrastructure seems to have fared relatively well, the decision to reopen buildings will be based on when basic services will be restored and when the government will allow people to return. What makes the task immeasurably more difficult is that the community leaders themselves are victims. “How can I help Tulane students cope with their displacement when my family has been displaced as well, when my kids have been ripped from their lives too, and I need to help them adjust to a new home and a new school?” asked Paige Nathan, executive director of Hillel of New Orleans. “What I have been telling my four staff members over and over again is that they have to take care of their own needs first.” Added Jody Portnoff, Hillel’s program director, “The students need me to build them up, to help them go forward with their lives. But I don’t know if I have it in me to build them up when I need that support as well. “And it is difficult for us in the helping professions, who are so used to giving help, to ask for and receive help.” Earlier this week, after receiving tetanus and Hepatitis A and B inoculations, Stillman, Bronstone and Mark Rubenstein, executive director of the country’s third oldest synagogue, New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue, flew into the flooded city with the Baton Rouge sheriff’s staff to assess the damage. Synagogues in the Uptown district, and the Uptown Jewish Community Center campus, suffered minimal damage. Synagogues in Metairie and the new Jewish community campus there — which houses the Metairie Jewish Community Center, the New Orleans Jewish Day School and the Jewish federation offices — took in some water; flooring and sheetrock will have to be replaced. Unfortunately, Beth Israel, the only synagogue in the Lakeview area near the levee breach, may have to be razed. “We have unconfirmed information that because of the extensive flooding in that area, all the homes and buildings in that area will be razed completely. There was a large concentration of Jewish families in that area that will now be left homeless,” Stillman said. Baton Rouge, located 80 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, is quickly becoming the nerve center of the area’s Jewish community. Jewish Family Service, Jewish Endowment Foundation and the New Orleans Jewish Federation are in the process of setting up offices there, with assistance from United Jewish Communities and the local Jewish federation. It’s estimated that about 1,000 members of New Orleans’ 10,000-member Jewish community now are living in the Louisiana capital, which has its own Jewish community of approximately 1,500. Some people speculate that many Jews from New Orleans will settle permanently in Baton Rouge The only sure thing is that the face of New Orleans’ Jewish agencies will change. “Our clients will be different, our staff will no doubt be different as several may choose to relocate, and our services will be different,” said Gerber of Jewish Family Services. “While we have always offered financial assistance, it has been for the very poorest of the poor Jews, for whom $500-$1,000 makes a big difference. Now we will need to get the middle class up and running, and those needs will be larger. We anticipate putting together packages of loans and grants for them, just like people put together for college. “Before Katrina, we were already treating a six-year-old boy in counseling who had weather-phobia,” she continued. “Can you imagine how he is faring and how many more children and adults will need such help?” She went on: “Pre-Katrina, we had a very comprehensive teen-suicide prevention program that reached more than 7,000 high school students each year. Next year, when the need will be stronger than ever, where will its funding come from? That is what keeps me up at night.” Hillel of New Orleans is connecting with the 2,000 Jewish students enrolled at Tulane University, albeit “virtually” for the most part — and from Baltimore, not from its building just off campus. Nathan, Hillel’s executive director, is staying in Baltimore with family members, and Hillel’s program director, Jody Portnoff, will be relocating temporarily here. “This is not the job we signed up for, but it is the job we need to do,” Nathan said with a rueful smile. The first priority is to identify where students are now enrolled and encourage Hillels on those campuses to reach out to them. One positive factor is that many Jewish students who had never before been involved in Tulane’s Hillel have contacted Nathan, and she’s adding them to her database. In coming weeks, Hillel staff plans to go down the list and call as many students as possible, offering support and matching them with resources at the schools they’re now attending. In collaboration with Hillel International and relief agencies on the ground, Portnoff will be planning alternative winter and spring breaks for students from across the country to perform community service in devastated Gulf Coast communities. In coming months, Nathan said she hopes to travel to campuses where there are sizable Tulane contingents, helping them strengthen not only their Jewish identity but also their Tulane Jewish identity. The first such meeting was held at Stevenson’s Chizuk Amuno Synagogue on Monday with about 35 Baltimore-area Jewish parents whose children attend Tulane, as well as Tulane students studying this semester at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University. Janet Kurland and Harriet Schlein of the Jewish Community Critical Incident Response Team, based at Jewish Family Services here, offered tips for coping with trauma and stress, and Nathan outlined New Orleans Hillel initiatives. Madeleine Prior, a senior now studying at Johns Hopkins, had spent the spring semester in Europe and was looking forward to returning to Tulane. “I am grieving for New Orleans, for the people I knew, for Tulane and for myself,” she said, “and part of this grieving is that I am really angry, too, at how the government failed to respond to the victims.” Parents of freshmen who were in New Orleans just before the hurricane struck shared their evacuation experiences; those whose children did not evacuate with them shared their fears and worry. Yet all the parents interviewed for this article said they had no qualms about sending their children back to Tulane when the university opens. Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, whose daughter, Josepha, is now spending the first semester of her freshman year at a university in Costa Rica, said, “Being in a city that is totally rebuilding itself will be a remarkable learning opportunity. If there is any silver lining in this disaster, it is the opportunity for students to become involved with and learn from this rebuilding.” Added Stephen David, whose daughter Julia is studying at Johns Hopkins, “Because of the experiences my daughter’s class will have this year, they will have a very different perspective. They will return to Tulane with a real sense of purpose and will know that New Orleans is more than just Bourbon Street and the French Quarter.”

NEXT STORY