Helping Katrina’s Victims Ruined Synagogue in New Orleans Symbolizes Difficulty of Rebuilding

From the outside, Congregation Beth Israel looks like a deteriorating building in a bad neighborhood, with its boarded-up windows, ruined facade and mountains of debris on the sidewalk out front. The reality is much worse.

Except for the colorful stained-glass windows inside its main sanctuary, almost nothing is left of the 100-year-old Orthodox synagogue. Its once-gleaming floors are littered with pieces of wood and the torn pages of prayer books.

The bimah sits at an angle, not far from a broken felt stool embroidered with the Star of David. Off to one side, the blue-and-white flag of Israel stands proudly on a flagpole, but the flag itself is stained by a grimy water line that won’t go away.

From a Jewish perspective at least, this is Hurricane Katrina’s Ground Zero — a historic house of worship reduced to a rotting trash heap by one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States.

“We’re in a state of flux right now,” said Marshall Gerson, past president of Beth Israel. “We had the only daily minyan in New Orleans. But even before the hurricane, we were financially on the ropes.”

But there’s no doubt things have gotten much, much worse — and the damage at Beth Israel is, of course, only one measure of the overall damage caused by Katrina.

Although only four Louisiana Jews died as a result of the August 2005 storm — the statewide death toll is 1,079 — Katrina’s impact on the Jewish community will be felt for years, economically and emotionally.

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions sustained more than $20 million in uninsured losses and operational deficits, according to Stillman, and few people carried flood insurance.

Inside Beth Israel’s administration office, a Jewish calendar displaying the month of August 2005 still hangs on the wall, its edges eaten away by mold.

In the Joseph Hurwitz Memorial study center down the hall, wooden study benches are upside-down and books are scattered as if the place had been attacked by terrorists. In a touch of irony, the water line comes right up to a copy of the Achinu prayer, thumb-tacked to the wall in Hebrew and English.

The prayer says, “If any of our fellow Jews are in jeopardy or are entrapped, whether overseas or at home, may the Almighty take pity on them and deliver them from trouble to relief, from gloom to bright light, and from tyranny to freedom, urgently, swiftly and very soon, and let us say, Amen.”

Beth Israel, with 200 member families, is located in the upper-middle-class suburb of Lakeview, which before Katrina was home to more than 15 percent of New Orleans’ Jews.

Today Lakeview is a ghost town, with block after block of deserted, condemned houses waiting to be demolished. From the outside these houses look relatively intact, but, like Beth Israel, their insides are completely gutted — the result of having sat under 10 feet of water for a month after the hurricane.

“Structurally we believe this building can be rebuilt, but we don’t know if it will be,” said Beth Israel official Eddie Gothard. “Between the federal, state and local governments, they’re coming up with elevation guidelines, and if you’re below a certain elevation, they won’t permit you to rebuild. We’re waiting on that.”

If Beth Israel can be rebuilt, Gothard says it will cost at least $420,000 just to replace the ductwork and do the necessary plumbing and carpentry work.

“Then you have to disinfect everything,” he said, “and for all this you need commercial equipment. There’s no electricity in this neighborhood, and it could be that way for a year or more.”

Beth Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue in a city where 70 percent of Jews are Reform. New Orleans also has four Reform temples, one conservative shul and two Chabad centers, though none was as heavily damaged as Beth Israel. Nor was the local JCC, part of which has been converted temporarily into a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center.

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said the city’s pre-Katrina Jewish population was around 9,500. About half of the city’s Jews fled to Houston ahead of the approaching hurricane, while significant numbers of Jews also relocated to Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Dallas and Memphis.

As of Dec. 29, about 4,250 Jews — nearly 45 percent of the community — had returned.

“We had 3,600 Jewish households in our database, and we’ve heard from 2,190 of them,” he said. “So far, only 257 households have indicated that they possibly will not return or have decided that they won’t return. We continue to see more people indicating that they’re coming back, and the numbers will continue to climb.”

Mike Stern, 42, an investment adviser, rode out Katrina in the town of Monroe, La., having left with his dog at 3:30 a.m. on the day of the storm.

“I have quite a few elderly Jewish clients who have moved away to where their kids are, and they’re probably not coming back,” said Stern, who attends Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in suburban Metairie. “I also know several young Jewish families who are probably not coming back.”

Stillman has heard New Orleans leaders predict a net Jewish population loss of 10 percent to 30 percent, though he said the federation doesn’t know for sure.

“It’s too soon to tell,” he said.

But Linda Waknin isn’t waiting. Waknin is the owner of Casablanca, a kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Metairie. Despite having incurred $180,000 in storm damages, Waknin said she had no choice but to reopen the restaurant as soon as possible.

“I had insurance for the contents, but not for the loss of income,” said Waknin, who was born in Nahariya, Israel, but has lived in New Orleans for the past 26 years.

Her husband, Shimon, added, “The reason we reopened was also to bring the Jews back to New Orleans.”

Waknin said business has been gradually returning to Casablanca, helped in part by the throngs of young Jewish volunteers who have descended on New Orleans to help rebuild homes and synagogues in Katrina’s wake.

“I have a lot of friends who live here, and right now they’re desperate,” said Ashley Klapper, assistant director of the Baltimore-based Jewish Volunteer Connection. “A lot of Jewish people have small businesses, and those people can’t just pick up and leave. They had an income that had allowed them to live in a certain style. Now they have nothing.”

Elissa Bluth, whose house took in more than four feet of water following the hurricane, said she and her husband, Edward, a radiologist, carried $250,000 worth of flood insurance and $100,000 in insurance to cover material losses. But their house was valued at between $600,000 and $1 million.

“If devastation could be measured on a scale of 1 to 10,” said Bluth, sitting in the living room of her daughter Marjorie’s rented house, “we were at 9.9.”

Adam Bronstone, a federation official assigned to coordinate post-Katrina volunteer efforts for the Jewish community, says both FEMA and the Red Cross “have done a ridiculously bad job,” noting that the Federal Emergency Management Administration has delivered only 16 percent of the trailers promised to New Orleans residents whose houses were wiped out by Katrina.

“The reality is that, yes, every day things get a little better, but it’ll take a long time. I’d like to say that five years from now this will all be a memory, but it simply can’t be,” he said. “The mental anguish people have gone through in the last few months is indescribable. The only people who really understand us are Holocaust survivors.”

Bronstone added: “New Orleans is like the Wild West. It’s not for the faint of heart. We thought the water would be here a lot longer, like two or three months. If it had, you could have just padlocked New Orleans and thrown away the key, because it wouldn’t exist.”

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