Volunteers repair Katrina-ruined synagogue in New Orleans

100-year-old congregation had 150 families before storm; one-third of the community returned to the city.

Standing on moldy and debris-covered floors, college students cleaning up a synagogue paused for a prayer service - the first at Beth Israel Synagogue since Hurricane Katrina flooded it with more than three meters of water three months ago. The dozen or so students were among roughly 50 from colleges across the country who have come to New Orleans to spend their winter break helping with recovery efforts at the century-old synagogue, as well as at area homes and schools left damaged by the storm. The student volunteers, who came from more than two dozen states, wore face masks and gloves while hauling out books, furniture and ritual items to the synagogue's front lawn. The items were sorted by what would be buried on Tuesday in Jewish burial grounds in another part of the city and what would be thrown out. Beth Israel was the only New Orleans synagogue destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, said Jackie Gothard, the congregation's president. "We have to clean up, regroup our membership and plan for the future," she said Monday. Roughly 150 families attended services there before the storm. With only about a third of the area's pre-Katrina Jewish community of 13,000 back in the city, Gothard said consolidation and downsizing is possible. "We just don't know what's going to happen," Gothard said. "We don't know for sure that we'll be able to keep this property." In the synagogue's library, Jeff Kamen, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, separated the thousands of books to be buried from those that will be thrown away. The room was covered with mold. Talking through his face mask, he said coming to New Orleans "sounded like a worthwhile way to spend my time." Monday's recovery effort was a joint project organized by Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, director of Tulane University's Jewish student center and the "Chabad on Campus" volunteer mission. Gothard said the New Orleans Jewish community will be relying on nationwide support, especially during the celebration of Hanukka. A dozen Jewish communities donated more than 500 hanukkiot and dreidels on Tuesday to families who have lost theirs in the storm. Also, the American Jewish Committee planned Wednesday to present four institutions a total of $575,000 from its Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. The recipients are Dillard University, St. Clement of Rome Catholic Church, Congregation Gates of Prayer and Beth Israel.