Damage assessment moving slowly for Jewish institutions on Gulf Coast

Jewish institutions affected by Katrina and Rita are still struggling to assess the cost of rebuilding.

A month after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Jewish institutions in the region, from synagogues to schools to community centers, are still struggling to assess the nature of the damage to their buildings and the cost of repairing or rebuilding them.
"There's no way of knowing any costs at this point," said Arlene Barron, executive director of the New Orleans JCC. "It's very frustrating, it's very tough, because it's all moving so slowly. In New Orleans we haven't even been allowed back in yet, really."
Part of the problem, say Jewish community officials, is that insurance adjustors, who are overwhelmed dealing with numerous claims in the storm's aftermath, don't put institutions on their to-do lists until the areas where they are located are re-opened.
As such, some organizations are simply stuck waiting for adjustors to inspect their buildings. In the meantime, some organizations are taking small steps to help minimize the damage.
At the Chabad Jewish Center in Metarie, La., a clean-up crew went in last week and pulled out sheet rock and insulation to staunch the spread of mold in the synagogue building, which took in about two feet of water during Katrina.
The Goldring-Woldenberg Jewish Community Campus in Metarie, La., which houses the suburban branch of the JCC, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the New Orleans Jewish Day School, took about eight inches of water on its first floor in Katrina.
Eric Stillman, the federation's executive director, said that following the storm, an insurance agent told Jewish officials that it would be alright for them to perform some immediate tasks to prevent the spread of mold: they restarted the building's air conditioning and sheet rock and wall coverings were torn out on the first floor. In addition, furniture and some flooring materials were removed.
Meanwhile, synagogues throughout the area were busy trying to figure out not only how badly their facilities had been damaged, but where their congregants will be praying as the High Holidays approach.
Several Torah scrolls that had been hustled out of New Orleans for protection were evacuated for a second time in Rita's aftermath when rain waters overwhelmed the roof drainage system at Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Baton Rouge, La.
"They had to re-rescue the Torahs that had already been rescued once," said Emily Grotta, a spokeswoman for the Union for Reform Judaism.
Although the Torahs were unharmed, the synagogue's ceiling was badly damaged, leading to flooding in both its sanctuary and social hall. The Jefferson Baptist Church, with which the synagogue shares a parking lot, recently opened its doors to allow the congregation to hold its services there.
Other Reform synagogues were hit as well. Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metarie had its sanctuary flooded in Katrina and continues to operate out of Temple Emanu-El in Houston, where many Jewish evacuees took refuge in the wake of Katrina.
Although New Orleans' Temple Sinai is itself in working order, so many of its congregants lost their homes that it will not be holding High Holiday services.
Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Edward Cohn, will instead be serving as interim rabbi over the holiday at Baton Rouge's B'nai Israel, which recently put its rabbi — who had spearheaded its effort to house dozens of hurricane evacuees — on administrative leave.
The Northshore Jewish Congregation Mandeville, La., has been holding services in a parking lot since the first storm, and is still hoping to be back in the building by Rosh Hashanah. In the meantime, synagogue officials are awaiting a damage report from building inspectors.
The historic Touro Synagogue, which bills itself as the oldest Jewish congregation outside of the original 13 colonies, sustained minimal damage, but the area where it is located remains closed and the synagogue continues to operate out of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.
High Holiday services for evacuees looking for Reform worship are being planned in both Houston and Baton Rouge.
In addition to the costs of renovating and rebuilding, synagogues are likely to be hard hit on another front. If the congregations are shut down for a good portion of the coming year, their members — many of whom are likely to be working to repair their homes — won't be paying dues.
The Union for Reform Judaism, whose Disaster Relief Fund has raised close to $2.5 million dollars, has now made $765,000 in grants to disaster relief agencies, Jewish agencies and Reform synagogues.
The group also said it would be underwriting two months of salaries and benefits for full-time employees of the four New Orleans Reform synagogues, where many members' homes have been lost or badly damaged.
The group also has been holding weekly conference calls with rabbis, synagogue presidents and movement staff to determine what Reform needs are in the region. One need that has emerged is for prayer books, and the union is now organizing prayer-book loans from all around the country.
Members of the Shir Chadash synagogue in Metarie, La., a Conservative congregation, are still waiting for a verdict from inspectors on whether their damaged shul can be repaired or will need to be rebuilt from scratch.
In either case, officials from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism say, they are not likely to get back into the building until at least the beginning of year.
The USCJ's Hurricane Relief Fund has thus far raised $650,000.
At Beth Israel in Biloxi, Miss., also Conservative, large holes in the synagogue remain and its leaders also are net yet sure whether it can be fixed or will need to be torn down. If the latter proves true, they are likely to rebuild farther from the nearby shoreline, officials say.
In the meantime, they are planning to sign a deal with a local hotel to secure a room for services.
Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans, an Orthodox Union-affiliated shul, was flooded by somewhere between eight to 18 feet of water. Four out of six of the synagogue's Torahs — among them scrolls believed to be more than 250 years old — were damaged beyond repair, but a ZAKA Jewish rescue-and-recovery team was able to go in and salvage two Torahs.
"I'm glad that we did this, but I'm terribly saddened," said Isaac Leider of the New York-based ZAKA team. "It's hard to see them in this condition."
Leider's team was aided by members of the National Guard and other volunteers who were brought by ZAKA in a private helicopter from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
The OU, along with Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America, have thus far raised between $420,000 and $430,000 for hurricane relief.
The Chabad House at Tulane University stayed dry through the storms, but the Torah Academy in Metarie — whose preschool had just been remodeled — got between 6 inches and a foot of water. Damage to furniture and other items there was extensive.
Chabad-Lubavitch will be hosting a Rosh Hashanah retreat at the Atrium Hotel in Monroe, La. So far, 150 people have signed up for the High Holiday getaway, including a busload of evacuees coming in from Houston and Memphis.
Chabad — which has to date raised some $1 million for hurricane relief — is also planning Yom Kippur services at the Chabad Jewish Center in Metarie.
"We don't have sheet rock or carpets, but we'll have services, air conditioning, water," said Rabbi Yossi Nemes. "We're very much looking forward to the holidays," he added.
The Jewish month of Elul " is a month of preparation, and the fact is that we've been wandering this whole month. It's been a different kind of life in the month before Rosh Hashanah than we've ever had."
The United Jewish Communities, meanwhile, enlisted the aid of Hollywood celebrities to raise money for its Disaster Relief Fund. The group — which along with the Jewish federations of North America, has raised more than $16 million for disaster relief efforts — sponsored a benefit Tuesday in Los Angeles in which celebrities would be decorating tzedakah boxes that would then be auctioned on eBay.
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, actor William Shatner, real estate mogul Donald Trump, television personality Regis Philbin and others have already decorated boxes, UJC officials said, and performers Bob Saget, Jonathan Silverman, Deborah Gibson and others were expected to do so on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., is still housing about 30 relief workers, five Katrina evacuees and two people forced by Rita from their homes in Lake Charles.
"I think people are tremendously frustrated, but certainly the people who have come through camp over the last month have felt lucky that they have a place to go," said the Reform camp's director, Jonathan Cohen.
"Jewish evacuees, wherever they have ended up, have been made to feel very welcome and thus have had a comfortable place to deal with the personal and organizational and institutional aggravations."