Seven years after Katrina, New Orleans Jews wander no more

August 30, 2012

NEW ORLEANS

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina toppled a nearby floodwall and drowned their synagogue, and after a seven-year journey praying in hotel meeting rooms, then in rooms borrowed and rented from another congregation, the 100 or so families of Congregation Beth Israel are finally home.  

The wandering congregation moved into their new synagogue in suburban Metairie on Sunday (Aug. 26), three days before the Katrina anniversary and two days before Hurricane Isaac hit landfall in Louisiana.  

With a short parade that included a New Orleans brass band, clergy and friends ceremonially carried their five sacred Torahs to their home in Beth Israel’s new ark.  

There’s a passage from Hebrew Scripture from the Song of Solomon carved into the ark’s face: “Mighty waters cannot extinguish our love.”  

“Every milestone we reach is worth celebrating, not only by that community, but the city as a whole,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who came to the shaken Beth Israel congregation community two years after the storm and helped steer its revival.  

The new synagogue stands next door to Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform congregation that first opened its doors to homeless Beth Israel in 2006, then sold it a piece of its land.  

Congregation Gates of Prayer, led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, seeks to preserve the core of Jewish identity while adapting broadly to modern culture. By contrast, Beth Israel’s Modern Orthodox Judaism conspicuously declares its Jewish identity by adhering to ancient scriptural mandates like dietary laws and rules for conduct on the Sabbath.  

In many parts of the country, there is a chill between the two branches of the family. But in New Orleans, the procession into Beth Israel started next door, at Gates of Prayer.  

“From the beginning, Rabbi Loewy stressed to us that in his opinion it was important that the complete Jewish community be represented in New Orleans, and that included a Modern Orthodox congregation like us,” said Eddie Gothard, a Metairie lawyer and the Beth Israel congregation’s president.  

Beth Israel’s old synagogue ― which has been retrofitted as a doctor's office ― stood less than a mile from the break on the 17th Street Canal floodwall that drowned the Lakeview neighborhood and much of the rest of the city.  

The Lakeview synagogue was so badly damaged that only a few precious artifacts were salvageable. Two menorahs and a hanukkia, a ritual Hanukkah menorah, survived. So do a stained-glass window and a wooden plaque honoring founding families from a century ago. The Metairie synagogue contains the ner tamid, the eternal light that burned in front of the ark in Lakeview, Topolosky said.  

A patio behind the synagogue is embedded with bricks bearing the names of Jewish agencies and congregations across the United States and Canada that helped Beth Israel through its wanderings.  

Weeks after Katrina roared ashore in 2005, New Orleans’ Orthodox Jews gathered for Yom Kippur services in a donated meeting room at a Comfort Suites hotel. Orange Home Depot buckets anchored posts from which bedsheets were strung, dividing men from women in traditional worship.  

“We know that we have the spirit and the wherewithal to get through the most difficult circumstances,” said Gothard, whose mother served as the congregation’s president in those dark days and would not entertain discussions about disbanding.  

“And we have a greater appreciation for the people in our community, who are more important than any building.”  

Bruce Nolan writes for “The Times-Picayune” in New Orleans.

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