Katrina's Jewish Voices - four years later
Saturday August 29, 2009, marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and it is time to take stock. The Jerusalem Report’s August issue does just that, featuring Arieh O’Sullivan’s article “Rebuilding Jewish Life in the Big Easy,” and Eetta Prince-Gibson’s article “Katrina’s Jewish Story,” in which she discusses Katrina’s Jewish Voices, a project of the Jewish Women's Archive in collaboration with the Center for History and New Media. To view the Jerusalem Report articles, click here.
Katrina’s Jewish Voices (KJV) set out to capture the “Jewish experience” of Katrina. The project includes more than 80 video interviews with members of the New Orleans Jewish community, as well as an exhibit of digital artifacts collected online. Jayne Guberman, director of the KJV project, says in the Jerusalem Report: “The interviews reveal that Jews in New Orleans attempted to understand the storm and its destruction within a Jewish framework.” Many interviewees mentioned trials in Jewish history, including the Holocaust. These comparisons provided a unique lens through which to process and cope with the loss and displacement created by Katrina. Another common theme was the effective response of the organized American Jewish community, raising and distributing $28 million dollars in aid, and the security of knowing that the Jewish community was there and ready to help.
The Jewish Women’s Archive began KJV soon after the hurricane hit in August 2005, and began collecting oral histories a year later. As Jayne Guberman explains in The Jerusalem Report, “On the one hand, this was close enough to the event for the interviewees to still feel the impact in a very emotional, almost visceral way. On the other hand, this year also gave them time enough to gain an initial sense of perspective, to reflect on the communal as well as the individual experience, providing us with valuable insights and conclusions.”
Roselle Ungar and Deena Gerber, both leaders of the New Orleans Jewish community, were interviewed in 2006 as a part of KJV. Last week I called to catch up with them. In honor of the fourth anniversary of Katrina, Jewesses with Attitude will host a series of posts about KJV featuring my conversations with Ungar and Gerber, two remarkable women at the heart of the “Jewish experience” of Hurricane Katrina.
Deena Gerber, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service in New Orleans, was on the front lines during Katrina. Recently she reflected, “Now that it’s been four years … I really realize how much I’ve forgotten, or not forgotten but integrated into myself … For a couple years I could have told you what I did every day for those first four weeks. I can’t remember now.” Roselle Ungar, Assistant Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans during Katrina, said, “You go through a crisis like this, and you get in ‘crisis mode,’ and you look back on it and you remember how miserable that time was. But then you kind of forget, you know? Time heals and you can’t believe you went through all that. It’s very strange. I was so happy the JWA did [Katrina’s Jewish Voices] when it was still fresh in people’s minds to be able to keep and preserve that.”
How do they feel about the inevitable fact that each year Katrina fades just a little bit more from our national consciousness? “I think what’s being done is fair and appropriate,” Ungar said. “There will be remembrances throughout the city, and people will stop and they’ll ring a bell the minute the levees broke, and they will still do that stuff but it won’t be the big huge splash that it’s been in previous years… It’s just like the World Trade Center: they do something every year but it’s not as visible and front and center as it was the year before and the year before. We don’t plan any big parties that weekend yet, we still don’t do that.” Gerber expressed a similar sentiment: “Life moves on. It’s important to learn lessons from [Katrina], and I sure hope that everyone around the country who has levee protection is making sure that their levees hold, but it wouldn’t be mentally healthy for Katrina to stay on the front burner. You’ve got to move on with life—you’ve just got to. If you stay stuck there, you’re just stuck.”
Check in again this week for more on Roselle Ungar, Deena Gerber, and “Katrina’s Jewish Voices.”