Region prepares for evacuee influx

With cities like Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., experiencing an immediate doubling of their populations, congregations are working to provide services to New Orleans residents.

Bert Rubinsky, who is one of the coordinators in Jackson, said there are already about 75 Jews from New Orleans in the Jackson area, and more are expected. He returned to Jackson just before the storm from a Bar Mitzvah in Chicago to find 19 relatives who had left New Orleans.

In addition, his wife’s grandmother died in Lafayette, La., en route to Houston after being evacuated from a New Orleans hospital.

He said the immediate need in Jackson is funds to help the community provide services to the evacuees.

Richard Klein, regional director of United Jewish Communities’ Network, which services smaller Jewish communities in the region, said the Jackson Jewish community is “frantically working” to assist evacuees, and “we’re trying to assist them.”

Klein said a group from Lubavitch of Orange County, Calif., is on the way to Jackson to help with the situation, and the team includes a rabbi who worked with the aftermath of last year’s tsunami in Asia.

Birmingham currently has about 60 or so evacuees from the New Orleans Jewish community, with more arriving.

Yesterday, there was a conference call for Federation leadership throughout the region. Many communities took part, coordinating their relief activities. Besides food and housing, needs include transportation between communities, financial needs for victims and the communities assisting them, schooling for families with children, counseling, medical care, reestablishing personal identity information, and assessing special-needs evacuees.

Klein noted that when the situation in Hattiesburg came up — there have been numerous reports of violence and looting — the Birmingham Jewish community offered a plan to evacuate the Jewish community to Birmingham. Klein said, “As it turns out, it is probably not necessary, but it’s a wonderful thing to offer.”

Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of Hattiesburg’s B’nai Israel was in Spain when the storm hit. He is now with family in Kansas, trying to return to Hattiesburg, but finding difficulty renting a car. His vehicle was at the New Orleans airport.

Cukierkorn said he has heard reports of “people killing each other over a bag of ice.” Nevertheless, he said, based on his conversations with those still there, everyone in the Hattiesburg Jewish community “is fine… people have a lot of endurance.”

He said the footage he has seen from Hattiesburg “looks like a war zone, a war we lost.” The congregation’s building has roof damage.

Last year, the congregation was forced to cancel High Holy Day services due to Hurricane Ivan, and he vowed “we’re not doing that this year.”

He said the small Jewish community on the Mississippi coast will be most affected. On his visits to that area, many of the congregants said they were not originally from there, and came there because of the casino industry. “Those people are going to move away,” Cukierkorn said, while those from New Orleans have generational roots and will likely return.

He also said that he has heard reports of housing in places like Houston and Baton Rouge being completely absorbed by the evacuees, with bidding wars over properties.