New Orleans's Jews brace for Gustav with remembrance of Katrina

They don't appear willing to allow another hurricane to interfere with their long-term plans.

September 1, 2008 00:18
3 minute read.
New Orleans's Jews brace for Gustav with remembrance of Katrina

hurricane gustav 224.88 . (photo credit: AP)

On Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Vic Hoffman of Jerusalem was trying to contact friends in New Orleans to check on their safety, as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast and residents of the city braced for a repeat of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm had crushed the levees protecting New Orleans and submerged some 80 percent of the city. Along the US Gulf Coast, 1,500 people lost their lives, and the expense of repairing the damage was estimated at $80 billion. This time, residents are being required by law to evacuate the city, unlike in Hurricane Katrina, when they were only advised to do so. With Rosh Hashana approaching, Hoffman, who left New Orleans for Israel 27 years ago and is the former rabbi of New Orleans congregation Shir Hadash, firmly declares that "no way will there not be High Holy Days services in New Orleans. Last time, the day before Yom Kippur, the National Guard came into one of the synagogues and cleaned out the synagogue to make it ready for the services. "They ripped out all the rotting pews and carpeting, put in folding chairs, cleaned the walls. We also have a month to get back into shape." Michael Wiel, a native Jerusalemite, joined the Jews of New Orleans to restore their community after Hurricane Katrina struck. Today, he's the executive director of their local federation. On Friday, he sent an e-mail to all of its members, telling them to enjoy their weekend out of town while staying mindful of the city they leave behind to fate and Mother Nature. "The city of New Orleans is being tested again, and this time from a position of strength, resilience and better preparation," he wrote on The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans's Web site, "We are prepared for any eventuality and hoping for a non-event - maybe just an extended Labor Day weekend or an extra-long Shabbat experience with a chance to switch off from the everyday routine and tension. "This is a time to think, to ponder and to enjoy if possible, especially if you are spending time with your loved ones." Just a few years ago, New Orleans was home to a thriving, close-knit community of about 11,000 Jews. Three hundred families belonged to Hoffman's Shir Hadash congregation, which managed to salvage its Torah scrolls when the city was flooded. Other synagogues were not as fortunate; one lost almost its entire collection. Approximately 65% of the original Jewish population returned to New Orleans after Katrina. Many residents found that the hurricane had also wiped out all ways of making a living there. Once flourishing businesses were ruined by the storm, and a large number of refugees dispersed to reestablish their lives in other cities where family members had settled. More than half of the community sought shelter in Houston. Hoffman expresses the optimism with which the Jews who did remain gradually rebuilt their New Orleans structure. "Certainly the community is operating, schools have been reestablished. Last year they started a day school with just a handful of kids. Forty kids were supposed to start this coming year. Now with this storm, I don't know if the community will be decimated again, we don't know the course of the storm until the last second." Still, he describes the Jewish presence as thriving and "cohesive. We'll deal with it." The evacuation is well-organized, especially in contrast to the anarchy that followed Katrina. Any New Orleans resident who resists evacuation is warned of arrest. There will be no emergency services or last-resort shelters available in the city. The Jews of New Orleans do not appear willing to allow another hurricane to interfere with their long-term plans. Wiel, not content with just the reestablishment of the pre-Katrina community, established a campaign to attract young Jews from all regions of America to move to New Orleans. "I am confident that whichever course nature takes, the Jewish community of greater New Orleans is in a good state. We are resilient, strong, and optimistic. We are poised to deal with any emergency, and we will continue to implement our ambitious long-term plans for rebuilding and renewal."

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