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Katrina-depleted Jewish Community Begins High Holy Days with Heavy Heart

c. 2006 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ Their numbers diminished by a third since Hurricane Katrina, their congregations and service agencies battered, members of New Orleans’ Jewish community are celebrating the High Holy Days at home for the first time in three years. Last year thousands of Jews scattered by Katrina found themselves in […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ Their numbers diminished by a third since Hurricane Katrina, their congregations and service agencies battered, members of New Orleans’ Jewish community are celebrating the High Holy Days at home for the first time in three years.

Last year thousands of Jews scattered by Katrina found themselves in Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, La., for the beginning of the solemn 10-day period of reflection and atonement. In 2004, another storm, Hurricane Ivan, chased them and an estimated 600,000 residents out of the area for Rosh Hashana before that storm veered into the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“Now everyone’s just happy to be home,” said Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

But in a city where little is normal, Jews will have to settle for what Rabbi Theodore Lichtenfeld called “the new normal,” an emotional landscape of gray tones in which family and community life is less desperate, less chaotic than six or eight months ago _ but far from the comfortable rhythms most communities take as a given.

“Things are not the same. Underneath everything there’s lots of stress. This isn’t normal,” said Louis Geiger, executive director of the Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.

Like many others, Geiger’s temple is repaired and open, offering a full range of programs just as before the storm.

But on a table near his desk stands an 8-inch stack of envelopes addressed to synagogue members the post office cannot find.

Lichtenfeld, rabbi of Congregation Shir Chadash in Metairie, said he believes those who remain are weary of Katrina and hungry to reflect again on themes that were important to them before the storm. But in coming days, neither can he ignore their shattering communal experience of dislocation and loss, Lichtenfeld said.

“Katrina will always be the elephant in the room,” he said.

Lichtenfeld estimates he lost almost 20 percent of the 395 families who used to belong to the area’s single conservative congregation.

Their Katrina losses were worse than some, but better than others _ notably Congregation Beth Israel, a small Orthodox congregation whose temple in the New Orleans neighborhood of Lakeview flooded with 10 feet of water.

But even battered Beth Israel will gather to observe the High Holy Days, President Jackie Gothard said.

Rabbi Joseph Friedman, a visiting rabbi from Memphis, Tenn., will lead services in a borrowed chapel in Gates of Prayer. And they’ll use a Torah donated by a California temple.

Like Beth Israel, other local Jewish institutions remain damaged but intact. Buoyed by more than $10 million in relief money from the United Jewish Communities and nearly $2 million from national denominations, Jewish community centers, social service agencies and temples have survived the horrors of the past year.

Both Jewish community centers in the area have reopened, as has Jewish Family Service, a social service organization. The Jewish Day School, one of the community’s most precious institutions, remains open, although with a much smaller class of students. The institution that once educated nearly 70 children through eighth grade now has little more than 20, and only through third grade _ even though tuition has been halved.

In a few places, communities have even managed to maintain momentum. Temple Sinai hopes to continue a multimillion-dollar temple renovation. And the Chabad-Lubavitch community, which won acclaim for its post-Katrina relief work, recently broke ground for a new center near Tulane University.

All Jewish institutions, Ungar said, now seek self-sufficiency in a smaller community with fewer resources, they hope by next year or the year after.

Ungar and other Jewish leaders said no one has firm figures, but the best guess is that New Orleans lost about 35 percent of its pre-flood population of 10,000 to 12,000 Jews.

Moreover, several leaders said, the greatest losses seem to be among two groups: young families who have opted to leave the city, to rear little children away from the devastation; and older people _ including many major donors _ who have left New Orleans to live with grown children in other states.

Worse, many Jewish leaders share a common impression that in the year since Katrina they are burying people who have died too soon.

“These are people who before the storm were driving themselves around, living alone, doing very well,” said Rabbi Ed Cohn of Temple Sinai. “But after the storm, something happened to them. They just lost their health and were gone.”

Still, at most temples and institutions, physical repairs have been made, programs are up and running and staffers are coming to work daily, even as they try to put their own lives back together.

“I think we’re vital everywhere. We have a positive outlook. A very positive outlook,” said EllenRae Shalett, Temple Sinai’s administrator.

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

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