By Larry Luxner
BILOXI, Miss. (JTA) – Southern Mississippi’s Jewish population has suddenly mushroomed — at least for the next week or so — as 135 members of the campus organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life fan out through the area, repairing roofs of houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The Hillel students, wearing distinctive orange T-shirts that say “Rebuild and Repair: Tzedek Means Justice,” arrived New Year’s Day and will be leaving Jan. 15. They constitute the largest single group of Jewish volunteers to visit the storm-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast since Katrina struck the area last August.
“The Jewish students here in Biloxi have made a choice to be here, to do everything humanly possible to help these people,” said Stephanie Burton, a senior at George Washington University. “This storm stripped human beings of their loved ones and of the lives they knew. I guess all we want here is to do our part.”
In addition to Hillel, other Jewish groups have been active in Mississippi relief work. Shortly after Katrina struck, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatched a group of emissaries to Biloxi to assist with emergency search-and-rescue efforts.
Last week, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center sent its director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, to Biloxi to assess the progress of one of its affiliate organizations, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.
“We are a human-rights organization and disaster relief is not the focus of the work of our center,” Adlerstein told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “But it is the interfaith part that got us involved through a back-door channel, and who knows where it will lead us.”
The Hillel volunteers, each of whom paid $125 plus transportation, are split into various teams and expect to replace the roofs on 16 houses, all of them belonging to non-Jews. At night, they sleep on the floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.
The program is being coordinated by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, a Washington-based international social-service initiative sponsored by Hillel, and is getting $108,000 in funding from United Jewish Communities.
“During the past few days, the destruction we have seen has been devastating,” said University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker. “Before coming down, I had no idea how bad the situation was, and after seeing it first hand I realized how important it is that we are down here. The work we’re doing is a very small part of what needs to be done.”
One building Hillel won’t be fixing up is Beth Israel Synagogue, which was severely battered by the hurricane. That’s because the congregation’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to rebuild the shul at the current site or move to a new site entirely.
“If we make no improvement on it at all, it’ll cost $350,000, and that’s low-balling it,” said the congregation’s president, Stephen Richer. “But that’s probably not the best thing to do. We’ll probably redesign it so we don’t have a flat roof. For what we want to do, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”
Founded in 1958, Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Mississippi, had 60 member families before Katrina, representing about half the coastal region’s Jewish population.
“A few people have left, and some like me are waiting for their homes to be fixed,” said Richer, interviewed in the crowded 36-foot Coachman trailer that’s parked in his front yard.
Richer, who’s also executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, bought the trailer used for $50,000 and drove it up from Florida; he’s been living in it ever since because his own house is full of mold and uninhabitable.
So is Beth Israel, which sits on the corner of Southern Boulevard and Camelia Street, only a few blocks from U.S. 90, which parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction is everywhere along the coast, from the twisted remains of a local Waffle House to the floating Treasure Bay Casino barge that ended up on the beach, half a mile away from its moorings.
The synagogue’s administrator, Bonnie Kidd, said she was able to save the office computer, fax machine and important books. Mark Tabor, who lived in an apartment on top of the synagogue and was its caretaker, rescued the Torah scrolls just before Katrina hit.
“It looks as bad inside as it does outside,” said Tabor, a retired military officer who is temporarily living with his son in Mobile, Ala. “Eventually I will come back to Biloxi, as soon as they decide what we’re going to do.”
As bad as Beth Israel is — with its damaged roof, cracked wooden pews and mold — it’s nothing compared to the destruction elsewhere in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.
“We know about 15 Jewish families who lost everything. They have nothing except the clothes on their back,” Kidd told JTA. “Some of them left, some of them are staying with family or friends, and some of them have been able to go through the ruins and see what they could salvage.”
Since the storm, the Conservative congregation has been holding Shabbat services regularly at Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi.
“Our particular congregation is very ecumenical. We’ve participated in Friday evening services” at Beth Israel “for over 20 years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to bring in a non-Christian group,” said Rev. Marilyn Perrine of Beauvoir, which is also hosting Hands On USA, a volunteer group that includes Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers. “My folks are very open and excited about having Beth Israel in our building.”
Local churches also offered to host Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the visiting rabbi and cantor that had been sent by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism keep Shabbat, and with most Biloxi-area hotels destroyed by Katrina, there was nowhere within walking distance for them to stay.
In the end, nearby Keesler Air Force Base invited the congregation to use its chapel, said Richer.
Wayne Lord, the commanding general at Keesler,” came to Kol Nidre services before we started and made the most gracious remarks about the role of the U.S. military in preserving religious freedom,” Richer said. “We had probably over 100 people there – not only our members but also FEMA workers and Red Cross volunteers. We had a national audience.”
Real-estate broker Milt Grishman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Israel in 1963. When Katrina hit, Grishman was already at his brother’s house up in Jackson, Miss.
“This is the first storm I ever evacuated for, and I’m glad I left,” he said, estimating that between 10 percent to 15 percent of Beth Israel’s members won’t be coming back.
“We’re such a small congregation that just a few can be significant,” Grishman said. “We had a fair number of military retirees living on a pension, and I’m not as optimistic as some others on our board.”
That’s because local unemployment is now running close to 25 percent, and of the 17,500 hotel rooms along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast before Katrina, only 5,000 are now open, according to Richer. Of the 13 casinos that were either operating or about to open, only three have reopened – which could put a severe dent into Biloxi’s tourism-driven economy.
“Some companies are deciding this is not a good place to be and are leaving,” Grishman said. “There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and a condo boom, and all that’s encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”