A Year After Katrina: A Jewish Community Grows

A Year After Katrina: A Jewish Community Grows

Learning via art class with Mrs Kehaty

by Rivka Chaya Berman - New Orleans, LA

August 29, 2006

FEMA trailers block sidewalks along Marcy Fertel’s path to Chabad of Metairie. She walks in the street to get to the synagogue on Shabbat.

Electricity fades in and out at Michele and Adam Stross’s home in uptown New Orleans. Water pressure can’t be counted upon for showers. Trash collection, once twice a week, has been cut down to Wednesdays, but by Thursday morning, Stross’s garbage was still there as she spoke to lubavitch.com.

It’s been a year since Katrina. Hard hit areas are still struggling. “Debris is all over the place,” said Fertel. “People ask ‘Did you ever finish your house?’  So what if you don’t have carpet. You have plywood floors, that’s normal.”

Chabad of Louisiana’s new normal is a balance between realism and positive action: building for tomorrow, bringing a community together, sharing strength.

To mark the anniversary of Katrina, women from the uptown New Orleans offered their reflections on “Finding the Silver Lining… Even in a Hurricane Cloud,” said Chabad of Louisiana representative Bluma Rivkin. Women shared their epiphanies: how Katrina kicked the importance of material goods down a good number of rungs and taught them how few possessions they actually needed to get by. The recalled the sweet turns of fate Katrina brought: Two couples got married because of the storm. An evacuee to Texas returned with a new roofing company partnership. Friday night dinners at Rabbi Yossi and Chana Nemes’s Chabad of Metairie had grown to a weekly group of up to 70.

“Everyone is much more willing to lend a hand if needed,” said Michele Stross. For six weeks after Katrina, when she kept a rifle in hand to fend off looters, Stross drove the Rivkins’ car, savoring the air conditioning and the Rivkins’ generosity. “We don’t want that feeling to fade as the need fades out because that’s been a by-product of Katrina that’s been wonderful.”

Students at Tulane University and their parents participated in cornerstone laying ceremony for the new Rohr Student Center on August 27. As a rock flown in from Israel was lodged into place, the building that Katrina delayed got off to a jubilant start.

Mounted blueprints perched on easels at the open house for the cornerstone ceremony depicted how the Student Centers’ 5,000 sq. feet will come to life. “Some people come down and see the destruction, the mess and wonder what will become of the city,” said Sarah Rivkin. “It imparts confidence in our response to Katrina: Jewish life at Tulane is thriving and growing.”

Students of Chabad’s Torah Academy returned on August 24. School resumed in January after the storm, but there are still walls, bookcases and supplies missing. Government pledges of help came with rolls of red tape to unravel. Everything takes time but, as Torah Academy’s Malkie Rivkin said, “You can’t keep saying ‘oh Katrina, oh Katrina.’ You have to move on in a sense, and move on bigger and better.” Storm related activities – art projects, water related science, weather studies - so overtly the theme of last year will recede in favor of more regular school fare. Fertel, who volunteered to teach preschool at Torah Academy last year, will never forget the children who raced toy cars along building block highways and reenacted evacuation.

Surrounded by boxes at Torah Academy, community member Angela Lang sifted through piles of donated books. The school’s library was carted off in sodden piles of moldering papers, and she’s seeing what the kindness of strangers has turned up. After the storm, Lang volunteered to teach music and movement classes at the preschool and helped with Chabad’s Home and Garden Show for a Rosh Chodesh gathering on August 23. “I thank G-d every day for what Lubavitch has given us, stability and a place where we have been embraced. That sense of community is something we really need and appreciate.”

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