Assisting Biloxi’s Beth Israel

By Sue Fishkoff
(JTA) – When Rabbi Sam Kieffer flew over Biloxi, Miss., all he could see below was complete devastation. “From the plane, you see almost every rooftop covered in blue tarp” indicating extensive damage, he says.

Kieffer and his wife, Melinda, of B’nai Aviv, a Conservative congregation in Weston, Fla., and Harry Silverman, the southeastern regional director for the umbrella group United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, were on a one-day spiritual-relief mission Sept. 21 to Biloxi’s beleaguered Congregation Beth Israel, the only synagogue on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

All the Jewish movements have reached out generously to hurricane victims, sending money, food and clothing to Jews and non-Jews alike. But this was a rare mission focused on spiritual support.

Like the half-dozen devastated congregations in the New Orleans area, Biloxi’s Beth Israel was slammed hard by Hurricane Katrina. The synagogue building was badly damaged and cannot be used. But worse than that, 13 of the congregation’s 65 families lost their homes. Other homes are uninhabitable.

“Some may choose to rebuild. We don’t know,” says the congregation’s president, Steve Richer. “Some of our members have already moved away permanently.”

Throughout the areas hardest hit by Katrina, food, clothing, shelter and above all cash, is sorely needed by everyone, says Richer, who also serves as the executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But the emotional damage is just as extensive, with families separated, job futures uncertain and lifetimes of memories literally swept away in the relentless floodwaters.

“Quite frankly, it’s a very stressful situation for everybody,” Richer says. “Driving around, you see parts of houses, people’s personal memorabilia lying in the street. It’s really tough, especially for the children. You get to the point where it’s too numbing to focus on the individual tragedy.”

With his own home under a foot of water, Richer was in Florida over the weekend buying a mobile home to drive back to Biloxi, so he’ll have something to live in. “All the mobile homes in Mississippi are sold out,” he reports.

It was to bring some much-needed moral support to the shaken Beth Israel community that Silverman and the Kieffers flew to Biloxi in a private plane belonging to David Keller, the president of Temple Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sunrise, Fla.

The visitors met with about 30 people in Biloxi, including congregants and children, some of whom were Jewish evacuees from Louisiana. They gathered in one congregant’s office, which he was now living in, as his own home was destroyed.

Kieffer talked quietly with the adults, offering counseling and grief support, while Melinda Kieffer did a High Holidays arts-and-crafts session with the dozen children.

“We made Rosh Hashanah cards, and I asked them to make a wish for the New Year,” she reports. “They said,” ‘Can we wish the hurricane didn’t come?’ ”

Afterward, the Kieffers presided over a healing service for the entire group. Then they sat down to a kosher-deli lunch that Silverman had brought on the plane and handed out “Shabbat bags” containing candles, challahs and kosher grape juice prepared by the Kieffers’ Florida congregation.

The Biloxi Jews were “very reluctant” to take the food, Melinda Kieffer says. “One woman said to me, ‘We’re Jews. We give, we don’t take.’ ”

The visitors left $30,000 with the congregation, to fund rebuilding the synagogue and for distribution to its needy members and to the larger community.

People in Biloxi are finding it difficult to wade through the bureaucracy and get the emergency relief to which they’re entitled. “There are people cutting trees so you can get back into your house, but they only work for cash,” Silverman says, explaining why he authorized this cash disbursement.

It wasn’t the first spiritual-sustenance visit to Biloxi from a Jewish group. On Sept. 9, two rabbis from the Union for Reform Judaism counseled people at the Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Miss., which had taken in more than 100 displaced Jews from Biloxi and New Orleans. Four yeshiva students from the fervently Orthodox group Chabad Lubavitch arrived soon after Hurricane Katrina. They helped clean up the synagogue and counseled the devastated congregants.

“The single hardest thing is all the people who want to reach out, and a lot of what they are offering we don’t need,” Richer admits. “People need clothes, but there’s no more room in the warehouse, and the distribution system isn’t working. People need cash, but it’s not getting to them.”

Maintaining congregational operations is nearly impossible in such circumstances, he says. Beth Israel hasn’t held services since the hurricane hit.

Richer says several offers have come in from other states to hold High Holiday services there, and while he’s grateful, he says, “We can’t really shlep our people to Mobile for services.”

One young girl in the congregation was planning to celebrate her bat mitzvah next month, and Melinda Kieffer reports that a woman called from Atlanta and offered to fly the girl to her synagogue in St. Thomas, in the British Virgin Islands, for the ceremony.

Despite all the turmoil, life goes on, Richer says. One congregant died Tuesday of causes not related to the hurricane. And the congregation’s administrator is due to give birth this weekend.”Life doesn’t stop because we’ve had a tragedy,” Richer says.