There was poignancy at the opening session of the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial last week. As 4,200 attendees rose to their feet inside the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had until just weeks ago sheltered more than 9,000 desperate survivors of Hurricane Katrina, about 40 members of the Reform movement’s four Gulf Coast congregations, including all four rabbis, paraded to the front of the auditorium carrying Torahs rescued from Katrina’s waters. The Torahs would later be used during the biennial’s Shabbat services.
“The pictures only provided a glimpse of the reality,” said Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, La. “Thirty percent of our congregation’s homes are uninhabitable. Another 30 percent are badly damaged. Our people are displaced,” with businesses pondering how to make a living. “The challenges are mind-boggling and overwhelming.”
Although the story has moved to the back pages of most newspapers, the misery caused by Katrina lingers, and its long-term effects can hardly be contemplated.
Rabbi Roy Walter of Congregation Emanu El in Houston told the crowd that 43,000 survivors are still being housed in Houston hotels and shelters, and 25,000 displaced children are attending local schools. They are what remains of the 250,000 evacuees that poured into Houston in early September.
The effect on Gulf Coast Jewish communities will be dramatic, predicted Daniel Freelander, the union’s vice president, who was one of the first Jewish leaders to visit affected congregations.
“We assume that 25 to 40 percent of the Jewish community will not return,” he said. Those who evacuated have found new jobs in Houston, Atlanta and Memphis, and their children are getting adjusted to new schools.
“If one-third of dues-paying members disappears, that will be devastating for the congregations,” he said.
Rabbi Andy Busch of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans said 70 people showed up for services last week, but he has no idea how many of his congregation’s 640 families are back in the city.
“People are coming back,” he said. “They’re nervous, but they’re hopeful. Realistically, not everyone will return.”
Busch and his family evacuated to Houston, where his children are now enrolled in the local Reform day school while he travels back and forth to New Orleans. Their house was damaged but not ruined, although it can’t yet be lived in. His cantor’s house was destroyed, and he “hasn’t counted” how many other congregants have lost their homes.
“We could have done worse,” he said.
Reform congregations across North America have sent volunteers, clothing, food and more than $3 million in emergency donations, to both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Katrina.
At the biennial’s opening session, Robert Heller, the union’s board of trustees chairman announced the creation of a special fund to support the movement’s Gulf Coast congregations, and urged convention attendees to fill out pledge cards they were given at registration.
Delegates also helped construct the walls and foundation of a Habitat for Humanity house for two days during the conference. It was to be shipped to the Gulf Coast for a needy family.
The outpouring of relief efforts at the biennial “reflects there is a sense of urgency,” said the group’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “Katrina was a traumatic event. It showed us the ugly face of poverty in America in a way we hadn’t seen it before.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.