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Jewish Journal

Rebuilding New Orleans—With A Little Help From Each Other

by Gail Naron Chalew

August 24, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Beth Israel was under 10 feet of water (photo by JTA)

Beth Israel was under 10 feet of water (photo by JTA)

One year after "the storm," as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms -- loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word "blessed," used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans' Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

"Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels," said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. "UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done."

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, "What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again."

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of "For sale" signs attests to residents' continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people's decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort -- those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities -- has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers -- those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, "In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue."

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed. "Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything," he said. "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."

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm's anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: "All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing."

"Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid," she said. "I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others."

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency's suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide "must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time."

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, "When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative."

Buying and moving into a new house was "the farthest thing from my mind," he said. "But what's the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence."

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: "I couldn't have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team."

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