Storm-tossed Jews celebrate New Year

Victims of Hurricane Katrina attend services across the south including in native New Orleans.

A Rosh Hashana service here for Jewish evacuees from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast felt more like a reunion many had not seen each other since they were driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina. The service held at a music hall at Rice University drew about 120 Jewish evacuees from the Gulf of Mexico coast to celebrate the Jewish New Year, which began Monday night. "Like migratory birds, our Jewish homing device prompts us to flock together," said Rabbi Robert Loewy, who led the service. "It feels so good to see familiar faces, embrace one another." The holiday came as Jewish evacuees remain scattered throughout the country after Katrina hit. About 10,000 Jews lived in the New Orleans area and around half of them are believed to have come to Houston. "I want to remember that there is always hope, always a new beginning, no matter what has been lost," said Cathy Chessin, 50, of New Orleans in between exchanging hugs and kisses with other evacuees in attendance Monday. Loewy said he was thankful for the generosity and hospitality that Houstonians have provided Jewish evacuees. But he lamented not being able to celebrate the Jewish New Year within the walls of his own synagogue, Congregation Gates of Prayer in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. "Yet our people learned long ago that one does not need a specific edifice to be a congregation," he said. "All that is required is any venue and a shared agenda, a desire to reach out to God. And so we are here tonight to recite the words, sing and hear the melodies, to be a united community." Steve Shonkoff, from New Orleans, described the service as more of a reunion. "It's a tremendous feeling to be able to get together with these people," he said. "It's very special. I haven't come to services in quite a while and I made it a point to come here tonight." Some storm refugees who have been able to return to the New Orleans area also celebrated the holiday as best they could. At Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in Metairie, Louisiana, they had to import the rabbi from Los Angeles and the halla from Dallas. The main auditorium was unusable, so congregants gathered in a smaller prayer room. Though their Torahs had been safely evacuated, hundreds of religious texts were damaged beyond repair and buried in a nearby cemetery last week, in accordance with Jewish tradition. But the 80 or so congregants who gathered Monday were just happy to have a place to celebrate the High Holy Days. "We're being given a fresh start, a new beginning," said 19-year-old David Weber, who attends the synagogue.