With its destroyed synagogue on the front pages of High Holy Day issues of Jewish newspapers nationwide, members of New Orleans’ Beth Israel assembled for an emotional Yom Kippur service at the Comfort Inn in Kenner.
Helping comfort the 45 in attendance was the return of an act of kindness from several years ago.
Because the congregation’s books were destroyed when 12 feet of water flooded the Beth Israel building in Lakeview, a request went out for any congregation that had excess Birnbaum Machzorim to send them to New Orleans for the service.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz saw the request and started to box up some Machzorim from the Fountain View Retirement Home in Monsey, N.Y. The congregation had recently purchased new books in memory of their long-time gabbai, a layman who helps in running services, so the ones that had been donated to them seven years ago were now surplus.
When he mentioned the reason for the books being available, he was told that Beth Israel’s gabbai, Meyer Lachoff, died “of natural causes” before being evacuated from Woldenberg Village the day the levees gave way.
Seplowitz prepared dedication plates for the books, in memory of both gabbais, when he noticed where the books originally came from — Chevra Thilim, which was one of two congregations that merged to form Shir Chadash in New Orleans in 1999.
The books went “home for the holidays,” Seplowitz said, adding that he told his congregants about it at Yizkor, during his fundraising appeal for hurricane relief.
Rabbi Robert Shur, program coordinator in the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community and Synagogue Services, was dispatched to New Orleans when Beth Israel requested help in running their services for Yom Kippur. Shur, who received ordination earlier this year from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was accompanied by two current YU students, Menachem Butler, a senior, and Elyassaf Schwartz, a junior, both of whom are active in YU’s new Center for the Jewish Future.
They brought with them a Torah scroll, courtesy of YU, and food for the pre-fast and break the fast meals.
Prior to the holiday, Shur and the students went to Beth Israel — which he described as “a total ruin. It looked like at atomic bomb hit it.” They managed to salvage a yarhzeit (memorial) candle (which, in a similarity to the Chanukah story, burned throughout the holiday), Torah covers and menorahs from the shul.
“Everyone at services was remembering the destruction of their shul, and they work they put in trying to salvage it,” said Shur, describing the emotions he confronted.
Synagogue President Jackie Gothard vowed to the congregation that the shul will be rebuilt.
In his sermon, Rabbi Shur spoke about “how the beauty of a synagogue is a reflection of the love people put into it — so the beauty of the Beth Israel Congregation will return,” he said.
In thanking the OU, Edward Gothard said “More than the Red Cross, FEMA and State Farm Insurance, our community needed to be together, in a traditional minyan, for a proper Yom Kippur service. Through our hugs and tears and prayers, you could feel the healing taking place and feel some peacefulness re-enter our lives.”