Rosh Hashanah in the Katrina Zone

With the words “why is this year different from all other years” and a Rosh Hashanah niggun, services began at newly-dry Shir Chadash in New Orleans on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

Like the only other High Holy Day service in New Orleans that day, across town at Touro Synagogue, it was very different from all other years, thanks to Hurricane Katrina.

On all other years, every synagogue in New Orleans would be packed. This year, only a few hundred were back in the city to attend a service, and the crowds were swelled by Jewish relief workers looking for High Holy Day services.

On all other years, congregants familiar with each other would meet and greet. This year, Touro Executive Director Mark Rubenstein looked around the room and commented “I don’t know half of the people here today.”

Having Rosh Hashanah in New Orleans was one step on a long journey toward normalcy for a community that has been scattered across the country. Shir Chadash decided to hold its main service in Houston, where there is still a large proportion of its membership. Other New Orleans congregations held services in Baton Rouge, and Chabad hosted a Rosh Hashanah retreat at a hotel in Monroe, which attracted about 150.

Well over 100 attended the evening service at Shir Chadash; the next morning, about 60 were in the building when services started.

The main sanctuary was in no shape to handle a service. The walls and water-damaged pews showed evidence that about six inches of water had been in the room.

In the chapel, portable chairs were lined up on a bare floor, where the carpet had been ripped out. There was one Torah in the ark, loaned for the day from nearby Gates of Prayer. The congregation’s Torahs had been evacuated to Baton Rouge for safekeeping.

Anne Brener, a New Orleans native and fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, led services at Shir Chadash, where she has family ties. After the hurricane, she volunteered with the Red Cross and was stationed out of Montgomery, then Gulfport. She was supposed to go to Baton Rouge, but was sent to New York to wait until Hurricane Rita passed.

While in New York, she emailed Shir Chadash Rabbi Theodore Lichtenfeld and asked what she could do, and he asked if she could lead services at the Conservative congregation in New Orleans.

She had never led a service with the Conservative machzor before, and had never led a service without a cantor. Noting that the crowd was made up of Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews, she said it was a holiday of compromises for everyone.

New Orleans rabbis have repeatedly commented in Katrina’s aftermath that they are now serving as rabbis for all of New Orleans’ Jewish community, regardless of congregational lines.

In the hallway of Shir Chadash was a display of Rosh Hashanah cards made by students in Massachusetts. Karen Lew noted that a congregation in Cleveland sponsored five of Shir Chadash’s teens to attend a United Synagogue Youth conference in Texas the previous weekend. Two other USY chapters are doing fundraisers for the congregation’s youth lounge.

There were a lot of hugs and swapping of storm stories as people arrived. Some showed resolve to rebuild and move forward, while one man said he was leaving town when his house is fixed enough to sell. He is living with his sister-in-law, and having lost his wife in May, said “I can’t take any more of this.”

There was some dark humor, including a discussion of where to have Tashlich services that afternoon. The levee at the 17th Street Canal, one of those that was breached, was suggested. One woman quipped that she forgot to bring her ticket for services.

Before the service began at Touro, Executive Director Mark Rubenstein was running around, trying to find empty seats in the chapel and directing the placement of chairs in the foyer, then stretching into the reception room. Additional seats were put on the bimah so board members could sit there. In all, about 200 attended the service. Many were in military uniforms, while others were Jewish contractors or FEMA workers.

“We had no idea what to expect,” Rubenstein commented, adding that more people made their way back to New Orleans than they anticipated. Much of the city was opened to residents the previous Friday, but with power out in most of the area, and the water still unsafe to drink, many chose to wait before returning.

Services could not be held in Touro’s sanctuary because there was no air conditioning. Though it is early October, temperatures still hit the upper 80s in New Orleans.

Flooding downstairs below the sanctuary also caused an oil leak, Rubenstein added, and there was an oil smell in the sanctuary.

The service began with everyone in attendance saying Gomel, traditionally recited by one who has escaped danger, and then Shehecheyanu.

Meanwhile, Gates of Prayer and Shir Chadash, both located in Metairie, have resumed Shabbat services as of this week.

Across Lake Pontchartrain, the Northshore Jewish Congregation prepared for a large influx for Rosh Hashanah. Their building had roof and ceiling damage, and held Shabbat services outdoors until the building was deemed safe three weeks ago. As Rosh Hashanah approached, dehumidifiers continued their work throughout the building, while large expanses of ceiling tile had been removed from hallways and the sanctuary.

In Baton Rouge, Beth Shalom held Rosh Hashanah services next door, at Jefferson Baptist Church, after Hurricane Rita flooded the congregation’s sanctuary and social hall.

Services in Biloxi

Biloxi’s Beth Israel Congregation is waiting to hear a report this week on whether its building can be salvaged. High Holy Day services are being held at Larcher Chapel at Keesler Air Force Base.

About 13 of the congregation’s 65 families lost their homes completely in the hurricane, and the Beth Israel building was heavily damaged.

Services were conducted by Rabbi Isadoro Aizenberg, rabbi emeritus at the Conservative Synagogue of Jamaica Estates, N.Y. He commented that in all the years he has been a rabbi, he had never witnessed an entire congregation rising to bench Gomel.

Aizenberg retired two years ago. Having been hospitalized over the High Holy Days last year, he was looking forward to his first holidays as a congregant, but when the request came from United Synagogue’s regional office, he knew it would “be a mitzvah” to come lead services.

Efrem Epstein has served as cantor for numerous congregations over the last decade, but was not committed for one this year. At first he thought he might be sent to Houston to officiate at an overflow service for New Orleans transplants there, but was asked to go to Biloxi instead.

About 60 attended services on the first day, with around 30 on the second day. High Holy Day cards from religious schools “around the country” decorated the back of the chapel.

The congregation is currently holding Shabbat services at a local hotel.