Synagogue dedications, while always joyous, rarely have a large significance outside of their local communities. Not so with Sunday’s dedication of Beth Israel in New Orleans (More photos here).
Numerous speakers stated that the Orthodox congregation’s dedication ceremony should reverberate throughout the Jewish world. Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, said “It’s a powerful image, the sifrei Torah being taken from makeshift quarters in a Reform synagogue, with a Reform rabbi (carrying), to an Orthodox” congregation. “The world needs this desperately.”
For close to seven years, since Beth Israel was displaced by the flood following the levee break after Hurricane Katrina, the congregation has been housed in a room at Gates of Prayer in Metairie. As the relationship between the congregations and their rabbis flourished, in 2009 Beth Israel purchased some of Gates of Prayer’s land and built its new 6,000-square-foot synagogue next door.
Rabbi Robert Loewy of the Reform congregation, Gates of Prayer, said the relationship between the congregations is one “we can all celebrate. A model for all the Jewish world.”
Beth Israel Rabbi Uri Topolosky said “it cannot be overstated how absolutely incredible, what a statement it is, that the dedication of our Orthodox synagogue begins in a Reform synagogue.”
Since this was New Orleans, of course there were other unique aspects to the celebration, including the Torah procession being escorted by the Original Pinettes, the world’s only all-female brass band.
And at the end of the musical Havdalah on Saturday, a few members could be heard riffing on the “Who Dat” chant for the beloved New Orleans Saints, who were playing a pre-season game in town that night.
While the central dedication ceremony was Sunday morning, there was a full weekend of activities. Services and Shabbat dinner were held on Aug. 24, and during the Aug. 25 Shabbat morning service the congregation’s past presidents were honored.
About 150 attended the Shabbat dinner and lunch. The new building has removable walls between the sanctuary and social hall, so a large crowd for services can extend into the social hall, and vice versa. This time, with the meals right after services, the room had to be reset, and was accomplished each time in 15 minutes.
“We’ve been through some tough times. But this Shabbat has been so sweet, Topolosky said at the start of Havdalah.
Weiss agreed, saying “this is one of the greatest Shabbatot God has blessed me with.” The light of Havdalah, he said, “was coming from this space… flowing upward, reaching out, encompassing the whole world.”
Still, reminders of the world kept creeping in. During the dedication ceremony, Jefferson Parish President John Young took part of his time to give a “public service announcement” about the approaching tropical storm, Isaac, and remind those in attendance about preparation and logistics. He noted his casual attire, saying the parish was already in emergency mode.
Topolosky noted he had told the speakers for the dedication that they could reference only two of the three patriarchs that day. “Abraham is good. Jacob is fine. But the middle one…”
Sure enough, the next day, many in the community prepared to evacuate as Isaac — while certainly not regarded as another Katrina — headed toward the southeast Louisiana coast for an anticipated early Aug. 29 landfall, seven years almost to the hour from when Katrina struck.
Remembering The Flood
That fateful day was revisited during a video presentation at the dedication ceremony. It started with images from the original building on Carondelet, then the effort to build the Canal Boulevard location in Lakeview, which was dedicated in 1971.
After an image of the centennial logo from 2004, the video showed images of the Aug. 29, 2005 devastation. Ten feet of water had flooded the building after the 17th Street Canal floodwall failed. The congregation’s waterlogged Torahs were carried out by ZAKA volunteers, then the video turned to pictures of members embarking on the arduous task of cleaning up. Three thousand books were buried in the Beth Israel cemetery, and the ruined Torahs were buried in a plot next to Meyer Lachoff, who had been the gabbai at Beth Israel from 1970 until 2005. He died in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
The congregation was able to have its first service about six weeks after the storm. Yom Kippur was held at the Comfort Suites in Kenner. A retirement community in Monsey, N.Y., heard that Beth Israel needed machzorim, High Holy Days prayerbooks, since all of them were ruined in the flood. Having just purchased new ones in memory of their gabbai, and touched by the story of Lachoff, they shipped their old ones to New Orleans. As the New York rabbi packed the books, which they had acquired second-hand a few years earlier, he noticed that they had originally come from New Orleans.
As the community started coming back, there was an open question as to whether the congregation could rebuild or even continue. Before the storm, the Canal Boulevard location was too large for what had become a smaller congregation, now further cut by the number of families that relocated elsewhere after the storm.
Current Beth Israel President Edward Gothard said “it would have been easier for Beth Israel to experience the same sad death as our seven Torahs.”
Then-president Jackie Gothard, his mother, wasn’t about to give up, though success was far from certain. After the Metairie congregations — Chabad, Shir Chadash and Gates of Prayer — reached out, Beth Israel started renting space in Gates of Prayer, with the long-term goal of a new building.
In 2007, the congregation hired Topolosky. He noted that with the support of his wife, Dahlia, “we found a beshert purpose here.” The congregation has attracted new members, and Topolosky has held weekly study sessions with Loewy and Shir Chadash Rabbi Ethan Linden.
Weiss said the Topoloskys deserve “so much credit” for all they have done since moving to New Orleans in 2007. “They didn’t see what was, they saw what could be.”
The next year, Rabbi David Posternock was brought in to be the executive director of Beth Israel.
The video presentation concluded with upbeat images of Beth Israel’s resurgence, activities with other congregations in the region, and the dedication of five new Torahs from communities across the country.
There were also pictures of a 2010 White House Chanukah candle lighting ceremony with President Barack Obama, using a menorah salvaged from Canal Boulevard, one of the few items that survived the flood.
The dedication ceremony began with Bert Stolier, who was a Marine at Pearl Harbor in 1941, leading a color guard of Jewish War Veterans members carrying the U.S. and Israeli flags. Students from the New Orleans Jewish Day School sang the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah.
Loewy then had three roles to fill — representing his congregation, the New Orleans Rabbinic Council and giving a d’var Torah.
He noted the Torah portion spoke of not “hiding yourself” when your neighbor’s animal is in need. “How much more so… for our fellow human beings?” he noted.
Katrina “placed burdens upon us all, but some much more than others,” Loewy said. Beth Israel “gave us the opportunity to perform the mitzvot of not hiding ourselves, and welcoming guests.”
Loewy said it was an exciting day for Gates of Prayer also. “Not because after more than six years you are out of our building,” he said to chuckles among those in attendance, “because you’re still here.”
Edward Gothard noted that for the two years between the storm and Topolosky’s arrival, Loewy “was sort of our spiritual advisor,” and praised Loewy’s “respect for all Jews and dedication to the entire Jewish community,” and belief that a strong community needs to have all streams represented.
Many others were in attendance, including Howard Fineberg, who headed United Jewish Communities’ response to Katrina. The Federation system raised $28 million for hurricane relief, helping New Orleans Jewish institutions get back on their feet.
Also at the event was Richard Stone, a New Orleans native who now chairs the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, spoke at a celebration dinner on Sunday, closing out the celebration weekend. At the dedication, it was noted that he personally assured the Gothards that “OU would do everything in its power to support Beth Israel and its rebuilding,” Edward Gothard said. The grant from OU was second only to UJC’s in size.
Other gifts from congregations across the country are recognized in a brick walkway behind the building, near the congregation’s sukkah.
Weiss said the gifts should be regarded as flowing in the other direction. By bringing out the best in others, the New Orleans community should realize “they have become the ultimate rebbes.
“This congregation has contributed so much to every synagogue in America and the world,” he added.
Also at the dedication were Rev. Luis Rodriguez, of Beth Israel’s other new neighbor, St. Clement of Rome Parish Church; and Rev. Frank Candalisa of St. Christopher Church.
Senator David Vitter spoke of the importance of roots in Louisiana. “This is an extremely important congregation and institution in our community,” he said. “We are all about revival and resurgence, and this is a wonderful example.”
Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne was then introduced as the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in Louisiana since Judah P. Benjamin in 1861. “All of us were broken by Katrina,” he said, “but we have been steadfast in our commitment to rebuild.”
Young noted that “God works in mysterious ways,” adding that in Beth Israel’s move from Lakeview, “what was Orleans Parish’s loss is Jefferson Parish’s gain.”
Noting the “religious corridor” that has emerged on West Esplanade — which includes four synagogues and the Jewish Community Center in a mile and a half — he praised the cooperation of Beth Israel and Gates of Prayer. “Let’s use that as a model and work together as a community.”
Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who represents District 5 on the parish council, said she has a diverse range of areas in her district, and is “certainly happy to represent the Jewish corridor.”
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand thanked the Jewish community “on behalf of all law enforcement agencies in this area” for “caring for the men and women who put their lives on the line each and every day.”
The new Beth Israel has the eternal light from Carondelet Street in display. Edward Gothard said the board approved a Ner Tamid recognition for “those who made extraordinary contributions to Beth Israel over the years,” and approved just two honorees. First was Jackie Gothard, president from 2004 through the difficult years, until 2007. Second was Lachoff, whose children, Irwin Lachoff and Frieda Ritter, were present. Irwin Lachoff, who is now the congregation’s gabbai, was given “the one thing” his father had but until now he has not — a key to the building.
Members of the building committee were presented with bottles of Beth Israel wine.
Topolosky noted an image from the book of Ezra, at the building of the Second Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. The tears of joy mixed with the tears of memory and sadness over the First Temple until they “became one.
“We have become one. Tears of sadness, of memory… the history that is in all of you, and also the tears of joy as we prepare to walk to our new home.”
With that, the video history began. As it ended, the brass band marched in, followed by the congregation’s children carrying small Torahs. Two of the groups that dedicated new Torahs for Beth Israel came to town for the celebration and carried those Torahs in the procession.
Ken and Nancy Levin represented Beth Emet, a Conservative congregation in Anaheim, Calif., that dedicated a Torah at Beth Israel in May 2007, after a group of 50 Beth Emet members had visited New Orleans on a hurricane relief trip.
The Ulanow family from Potomac, Md., who are now also members of Beth Israel, carried the Torah that Ethan Ulanow acquired. He had directed all of his Bar Mitzvah gifts to purchasing the Torah for the congregation four years ago.
The other three Torahs, from Los Angeles, Penn Valley, Pa., and Somerville, N.J., were first carried by Topolosky, Posternock and Loewy.
The procession stopped briefly in the Gates of Prayer parking lot as celebrations took place, then proceeded into the Beth Israel parking area.
A blue ribbon was cut by Edward Gothard and Alexander Barkoff, co-chairs of the building project, and everyone proceeded into the building.
As the band continued to play in the back of the main room, the Torahs were passed to older congregation leaders, who then handed them to the next generation of leadership. The Torahs were then placed in the ark, upon which is the Hebrew inscription, “Mighty Waters Cannot Extinguish Our Love.”
After that, everyone moved back to the front door where the mezuzah was attached, completing the dedication ceremony.
Topolosky expressed his hope for “many more years in this building, until we have to push out the back wall and make more room.”