Katrina's Jewish Voices and Women's Stories
This post is written by Jayne Guberman, project director of Katrina's Jewish Voices.
Four years ago today, the world was transfixed as images of Hurricane Katrina roared across our television screens and the horrifying stories of people stranded and lost flooded our inboxes, websites, and, it seemed, every news outlet in the country. Certainly at the Jewish Women’s Archive, we were transfixed. Our beloved board member, Carol Wise, and her family had fled the storm along with tens of thousands of other New Orleanians and were holed up in a hotel in Dallas. Her messages to us in those early days were full of relief, gratitude for the loving hands being extended to them from across the country, worry and concern about their homes and their neighborhoods, and anxiety for those left behind.
I clearly remember our staff meeting that first week when we sat around the table in the JWA conference room, brainstorming about what we could do to help. We were giving as much as we could privately to support relief efforts. But, as an organization dedicated to public history –and with the full realization that we were living through a catastrophe of historic proportions – we talked about what we could do as an organization to help.
The answer came to us quickly. JWA, with its deep expertise in capturing the stories of people from all walks of life, was uniquely suited to doing just that – using oral history interviews to record the experiences of the Jewish communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and creating an online collection of documents and images from people across the country who had been directly affected by the storm or who had participated in relief efforts.
And thus Katrina’s Jewish Voices (KJV) was born. Over the following year and a half, in partnership with the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the Jewish Women’s Archive conducted 85 interviews with members of the New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Gulf Coast Jewish communities. We also set up a website where members of Jewish communities across the country could contribute artifacts about their Katrina experiences: photos, blog posts, web pages, Katrina journals, letters and emails, and much more. Today, that collection holds close to 3,000 artifacts.
Sometimes we are asked why JWA would undertake such a project. After all, Katrina was not a women-focused event, and it’s not even clear that there is a “gendered” angle on what happened. We saw it, however, as a historic event that cried out for documentation, and also an opportunity to demonstrate the creation of an inclusive history. We were determined, for example, that fully half the interviews we conducted would be with women; we developed questions about how issues of gender (along with being Jewish) may have figured in people’s responses to the storm. We sought out national Jewish women’s organizations, such as Hadassah and the National Council for Jewish Women, along with the United Jewish Communities and the Reform Action Center for contributions to the online collection.
So, is there a women’s story about the Jewish community’s experiences of Katrina? To me it was stunning to note that, at the turn of the 21st century, we didn’t need to look to women’s organizations to find out how women were responding to the disaster. In fact, women were involved in leadership positions at every level in the community. For example, when Katrina struck New Orleans, all of the synagogues had female presidents, including Beth Israel, the only modern orthodox Jewish congregation in the Deep South. The heads of the Jewish Family Service, the New Orleans Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Endowment Foundation – all women. And the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, who played such a critical role in getting stranded Jews out of New Orleans and resettled in Baton Rouge, was Rabbi Martha Bergadine.
On the other hand, our oral history narrators told wrenching stories about their families’ escapes, their resettlement in far-flung cities across America, and the long and challenging efforts to rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities, and their lives. Not surprisingly, the men were usually the first ones back to New Orleans, while the women often stayed behind with the children. Husbands and fathers often paved the way, sometimes returning to devastated homes and businesses months before their families. In the meantime, their wives took main responsibility for helping the children adjust to new places, new schools, and new friends, often while juggling the needs of elderly parents as well.
So you tell me, is there a woman’s angle on Katrina? Here’s one more women’s perspective: As I look around my office today, festooned as it still is with mardi gras beads, a New Orleans Jazz Festival poster with the words, “You Gotta Have Faith;” a figurine in the shape of a FEMA trailer which we found buried in a “King Cake,” a New Orleans delicacy; a booklet entitled “SPOILED” on the refrigerators of New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, I “know what it means to miss New Orleans”! And I count myself as one lucky woman, who got to know this vibrant and unique community, act as witness to its stories of devastation and rebirth, and create an archive that will inform generations of families, community members, and scholars for decades to come.