Gulf Coast Jews struggle to celebrate High Holy Days

"I'm very happy to have this year over. We've had a lot of tragedy."

Bad luck keeps following Stephen Richer. Last year at the start of Rosh Hashana, a hurricane evacuation sent him and a cantor at his tiny Biloxi, Mississippi, synagogue on an odyssey across the state to find a congregation where they could mark the Jewish New Year. This year, as the High Holy Days began Monday night, Richer once again searched for a spiritual home. His Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, is one of many across the Gulf Coast that have been shuttered by extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina. "I'm very happy to have this year over," Richer said. "We've had a lot of tragedy." Jewish evacuees are scattered throughout the country, their homes destroyed, their jobs gone and their future unclear. Victims say the generosity of religious leaders in cities where they've sought refuge has helped ease discomfort about celebrating the holidays in an alien environment. Orthodox Jews found housing for evacuees near congregations so they could observe the prohibition against driving on the High Holy Days. One Florida rabbi packed his Cessna airplane with kosher meat and cheese, Shabbat candles and halla, and flew the supplies to Biloxi. Other Jewish groups sent prayer books, while Baptist, Roman Catholic and Unitarian churches offered space for services. Still, many displaced Jews said the pain of having lost everything would only be compounded by observing sacred rituals among strangers. "I think the word is bittersweet," said Ruth Kullman, president of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, a Reform congregation that was damaged and did not reopen for the holiday period. Kullman, her husband and her 93-year-old mother-in-law fled to Memphis where Kullman's sister lives. "We're all so grateful to be here and together. We're just sad that we can't be celebrating the way we always had," she said. Jewish leaders don't know when if ever their communities will reunite. About 10,000 Jews lived in the New Orleans area and Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, has been trying to track them. Working out of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, he has contacted about 1,400 of the 3,600 families who were in his organization's database. Synagogue leaders have started their own on-line lists, but many families still have not been reached. "It's hard to predict," said Stillman, who fled New Orleans with his wife and two children. "Some people have said they're not going to come back.... Some people have already returned." Those able to get home have found their synagogues with smashed roofs, shattered windows, flooded basements, and mold and mildew growing in sanctuaries. As Katrina battered the region, anxiety spread among Jewish leaders about the Torah scrolls inside the buildings. About a week following the storm, a caravan of Jewish volunteers, accompanied by armed officers from outside New Orleans, went into the city to retrieve the scrolls. Some members of the mission had to swim through floodwater to reach their buildings, but all the Torahs were retrieved intact. Stillman drove about a dozen of the Torahs to Houston, where they were scheduled to be used in worship. Rabbis and cantors from New Orleans-area congregations were to lead some of the services in college auditoriums, churches and other sites around the region. Betty Zivitz, executive director of Congregation Temple Sinai, a New Orleans Reform synagogue of 850 families, said she was "trying to make as normal a holiday as possible." Zivitz and her husband spent weeks moving from Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis to Mobile, Alabama, before returning to their damaged but habitable home in Metairie, Louisiana. She has been meeting with insurance adjusters about repairs to the synagogue, where the basement was filled with 60 cm. of water and rain damaged the upper floors and ceilings. Zivitz and her family drove to Baton Rouge for the holiday, where her rabbi and cantor were leading services. "All of us are somewhat distracted. We're not going into the holiday season as we would have in the normal meditative state," Zivitz said. "I do think when we get there, we're going to realize the importance of this very meaningful break."