‘On Pins And Needles’


Weather permitting, the Jews of New Orleans will participate in what has become a rare event on Rosh HaShanah this year — High Holy Day services in their own synagogues.

The last two years, the weather didn’t permit. Last year, it was Katrina. New Orleans evacuated on the eve of the High Holy Days. The year before, Ivan. Ditto.

This year, a Jewish community that has returned home in smaller numbers from points around the United States is preparing for the New Year with an eye on the weather forecast.

“It’s hurricane season. I hope we don’t have to leave again,” says Rabbi Robert Loewy, spiritual leader of Congregation Gates of Prayer, New Orleans’ largest synagogue. “The total community is on pins and needles, waiting to see what happens next.”

Rabbi Loewy, who has evacuated New Orleans five times during his 22 years there, will conduct a Katrina commemoration service at the Reform synagogue on Aug. 25. Its theme: “Katrina: What good came from it?” The rabbi has encouraged congregants to share their thoughts on “the good that resulted from the storm.”

“I want people to stop dwelling on the negative,” he says. “It’s counter-productive. It’s a waste of time.”

Soon he will start preparing his yom tov sermons. By Rosh HaShanah, the third week of September, he will devote only some of his words to the hurricane. “Part of my thinking is it’s a year already — we need to move on.”

Gates of Prayer, like much of New Orleans Jewry, has started to return to its pre-Katrina life; most of the building’s million-dollar damage has been repaired.

At homes around the city, repairs are under way as a community rebuilds. “Imagine a whole community remodeling their homes at the same time,” the rabbi says.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana is to hold a cornerstone ceremony Sunday for its new student center at Tulane University. At other storm-damaged congregations, repairs are being made. And rabbis report continued interest in Jewish life.

“In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue,” Rabbi Andrew Busch of Touro Synagogue told JTA.

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agrees. “Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he says. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Beth Israel Congregation, a small Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water and has not been able to resume operations in its own building, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at Gates of Prayer.

About two-thirds of New Orleans’ 10,000-strong Jewish community, before Katrina, has returned.

“We’re losing really important members of our Jewish community,” says Saundra Levy, executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation. About 80 member families of Gates of Prayer’s 480 have resettled elsewhere. Of the returnees — “we’re talking doctors and lawyers and CPAs,” Rabbi Loewy says — many have greatly reduced incomes.

He says the financial and moral support offered by national organizations, especially the Union for Reform Judaism and United Jewish Communities, has helped New Orleans’ Jewish community heal.

“The Jewish community is going to continue to need help from the outside for the next few years,” Rabbi Loewy saysAccording to a report by the JTA, “not a single Jewish institution in New Orleans has had to shut its doors … while a number of area Catholic and Protestant churches have closed for lack of funding.

“Everyone who lives here is passionate about bringing the community back,” Levy says. “We’re thinking it’ll be a five- to 10-year period, but at the rate the federal government is going, it could be 25 years.”

The Gates of Prayer bulletin reflects the lingering reality of Katrina — a reference in a notice about an interfaith service, allusions in letters from temple officers, announcements of the awarding of Unsung Heroes awards, listing of a support group, a veiled reference to “you know what” in an item about library acquisitions. The congregation’s Web site offers emergency contact information. “In the event of another evacuation,” Rabbi Loewy says. And the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans added a section to its Web site about how to prepare for future storms.

“We’re better prepared,” Rabbi Loewy says.

The rabbi, who left New Orleans with his wife and youngest daughter the night before the storm struck — first he stored his congregation’s five Torah scrolls in a safe location — went to Houston, where he had earlier worked, then to Waco, where his in-laws live. In the subsequent months, he led services, sometimes joined by New Orleans colleagues, at various sites around Houston and in Baton Rouge, where many congregants had sought refuge, before returning several weeks later to his partially flooded home. His family remained in a rented apartment in Houston till December.

“For Greater New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, August 29, 2005 will be our 9/11, our day of tragedy,” Rabbi Loewy writes in an essay about his experiences. “We now speak in terms of before and after Katrina.”

“Katrina is a constant reality for everyone,” he says. “There’s not a conversation that does not have a Katrina link to it. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is unsure of what the future will bring. It’s the little jokes about ‘the next one.’”

To preserve the historical record of the storm, the Jewish Women’s Archive, (www.jwa.org), and the Institute of Jewish Life is collecting 100 oral testimonies of Jews in the region affected by Katrina.

At Gates of Prayer, no one will need reminding when the congregants gather on Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Loewy says. “We’re going to begin with recognition of the historic nature of us being together again.”