Of all the unknowns being discussed as Hurricane Isaac approached New Orleans, members of Congregation Shir Chadash knew one thing for certain.
“Nobody wanted to be the person that said, ‘Oh let’s not move the Torahs this time,’” said Rabbi Ethan Linden. “We sort of went into our hurricane action mode and did the best we could.”
One of the iconic photographs of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the region exactly seven years ago, was of men waist deep in flood waters carrying Torahs from Congregation Beth Israel.
So prior to what became a Category 1 hurricane and has since been downgraded to Tropical Storm Isaac, members of Shir Chadash moved the scrolls to a higher location in the building. Fortunately, as waves of rain lashed the area this week, the synagogue sustained no damage other than one leaky door in the chapel and a knocked-down playground fence, according to Shir Chadash executive director Sandy Lassen.
And unlike tens of thousands of other structures in the region, the building still had electrical power. In fact, it was hosting in its freezers the food of the New Orleans Jewish Day School—all while preparing for a bar mitzvah this Shabbat. For its part, the caterer for the event, Kosher Cajun New York Deli, lost power and closed down.
“We have enough food here that I’ll cover with lox and bagels,” Lassen told JTA.
Isaac pummeled the region with winds up to 80 miles per hour and drove walls of water up to 11 feet high inland. On Aug. 29, 2005, the relentless rain of Katrina, by then a Category 3 hurricane, led to the breaching of levees in the New Orleans, flooding it and destroying swaths of neighborhoods. In the years since the storm, $14.5 billion has been put into a new system of levees, walls, pumping stations and flood gates, almost all of which seem to have performed well in recent days.
“I’ve been checking and so far there’s no significant damage and we haven’t heard of any people who have anything untoward going on,” said Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “I peek out the window and the sun is shining with some clouds, but we’re expecting more rain.”
In an email he sent to community members on Wednesday, Weil wrote, “I think that the worst is over and now it’s just rain, lots of rain and more rain. By all accounts this massive 300-mile wide and deep storm is crawling its way up Louisiana. I think Isaac likes us more than we like him and he wants to stay.”
Jewish agencies remained closed Wednesday and Thursday. Weil emailed a list of emergency numbers and an emergency email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. The federation voice mail will be updated with community information as needed, he said. “You are not alone,” he wrote in his email.
Alan Smason, editor of the local Jewish paper, the Crescent City Jewish News, said that like most people he was relieved when the winds began dying down Thursday morning.
“A few pieces of the soffit flew off my house, and whenever there’s a major storm I have some problems with my downstairs,” he said. “Surprisingly, we did not have any major flooding in my area.”
He spent Thursday morning touring the suburb of Metairie, what he called “the Jewish corridor,” and said he saw little damage to Jewish institutions. He did see the sign of Beth Israel – the only synagogue irreparably damaged by Katrina and which dedicated its new building on Sunday – barely attached to the sign frame, so he reattached it, he said.
This Friday evening will mark the last time this season that the community’s three Reform congregations will worship together—a summertime tradition. This week’s host, Gates of Prayer, has power and is welcoming the community for a “blue jeans” Shabbat.
One of Shir Chadash’s family’s did survive a dramatic rescue. With water rising, a husband and wife were waiting in their car for a National Guard boat. They called their daughter on their cell phone, who called Shir Chadash. From there, Lassen called the rabbi to alert him. The couple was rescued and are now OK.
Despite the coinciding dates of Katrina and Isaac, Linden said he did not necessarily see a heavenly hand in such matters.
“I don’t think of these things theologically,” he said. But, he added, “Ritual offers the restoration of normalcy and that’s part of what we can provide,” he went on. “New Orleans is a great place. People came together and I know they’re now staying at each other’s houses and helping each other out and there’s something very powerful about that.”