Seven years after flood, New Orleans congregation dedicating new building

It isn’t often that an Orthodox congregation dedicates a new building by starting a procession at a Reform congregation.

But in New Orleans, that’s par for the course, as Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood from the levee failure in 2005 ushered in an unusual era for the community, where new thinking was the rule.

While just about every Jewish institution in the city suffered some damage from the hurricane or the flood, Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Lakeview, was the only one whose building was rendered unusable.

The weekend of Aug. 24, leading up to the seventh anniversary of “the storm,” as it is known, Beth Israel will dedicate its new home, next door to Gates of Prayer on West Esplanade, where it has been housed for over six years.

The celebration will begin with Davening and Dinner, hosted by the Young Adults Committee, on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m.

Shabbat morning services will begin at 9 on Aug. 25, and the congregation’s past presidents will be honored. Rabbi Avi Weiss will speak during the service.

Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., a “modern and Open Orthodox congregation.”He is national president of AMCHA, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. Weiss also founded the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, where Beth Israel Rabbi Uri Topolosky and Rabbi Eytan Yammer of Knesseth Israel in Birmingham were ordained.

At 7 p.m., there will be Shabbat Mincha, the third meal of Shabbat, and a musical Havdalah service.

The dedication ceremony begins at 10 a.m. on Aug. 26 at Gates of Prayer, then will proceed to the new Beth Israel building, with a children’s Torah parade. There will be a formal placement of the mezuzah on the door to the main entrance.

At 6 p.m., there will be a gala dinner, with guest speaker Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union. Rachel Van Voorhees, principal harpist with the Louisiana Philharmonic, will provide musical entertainment.

James Beard nominee Alon Shaya of Domenica Restaurant is catering the weekend.

Long road back

The levee failure happened on Aug. 29, 2005, sending 10 feet of water into the Lakeview neighborhood where Beth Israel was located. On Sept. 13, a ZAKA group entered the still-flooded Beth Israel and retrieved the congregation’s seven Torahs, which were by then waterlogged and unusable.

The entire congregation had been scattered across the country, and as parts of the city were reopened, many gradually returned.

The first service back was held Oct. 12, on Yom Kippur, in a Kenner hotel. Shir Chadash, Chabad and Gates of Prayer reached out to the now-buildingless congregation, and an agreement was reached where Beth Israel would be housed in Gates of Prayer’s Bart Community Room.

Years ago, when Gates of Prayer did a renovation, Rabbi Robert Loewy insisted that an ark be added to the Bart Room in case an alternative service was ever needed. That turned out to be a blessing for Beth Israel. Topolosky said “an Orthodox service is about as alternative as he would ever have imagined there… but it was so beshert.”

Beth Israel buried the Torahs in the cemetery in March 2006, next to long-time gabbai Meyer Lachoff, who died during the storm’s aftermath. On the storm’s first anniversary, Beth Israel would dedicate a new Torah, a gift from the Los Angeles Jewish community. Four more Torahs would follow within a year.

Rabbi Topolosky arrived in the summer of 2007 to lead the congregation, as plans continued on a new building.

On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, a sign marking the “future home” of Beth Israel is unveiled at a joint program with Gates of Prayer. The formal agreement purchasing land from Gates of Prayer would be signed in December 2009.

Groundbreaking was held for the new building on April 18, 2010. This is the third building for Beth Israel. Before the Canal Boulevard location until Katrina, the original location was on Carondelet, and that building is now a church. An eternal light and stained glass window from the original building are housed in the new facility.

In February, one last service was held in the old building in Lakeview. The building was sold and in early July, the New Orleans Planning Commission approved the conversion of the building into a medical clinic, even though it was in a single-family residential zone.

The new building will be able to hold about 150, with removable walls expanding the sanctuary into the hallway and social hall. There are two meeting rooms and a babysitting room. The facility will be made available for Scouting programs, business and civic group meetings. The congregation will share Gates of Prayer’s playground.

As part of the building effort, an eruv was established in the surrounding neighborhood.

There is a $3.5 million campaign for the new building; as of last month $3 million had been raised. In 2008, Beth Israel received over $400,000 from an online fundraising campaign by the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshiva University.

On June 23, Beth Israel held its last service inside Gates of Prayer. Topolosky, who was leaving for Israel that week and would not be in town for the first weekend in the new building, noted it was also important to mark “celebratory” ends, not just beginnings. He said the congregation was not just marking time at Gates of Prayer, waiting for its own building, it was “our spiritual home to rebuild the kind of community we will need on land of our own,” philosophically, fiscally and communally.

Loewy said the last six years have been about “the ability to respectfully put aside areas of difference and embrace what we share in common. It teaches how two communities can learn from one another.”

As Shabbat arrived on June 29, the first service was held in the new Beth Israel. Many things were not yet complete — for example, the ark was a loaner from Gates of Prayer until the new one arrived from Israel in late July. Nevertheless, the room was filled for the first Shabbat in the new building.

Many synagogues have a Biblical quote somewhere prominent on the pulpit. While there are a handful that are common across the world, Beth Israel has an unusual one with special significance: “Mayim Rabim Lo Yichlu Lichavot et HaAhava” — “Mighty Waters Cannot Extinguish Our Love.”