Katrina at 2
Two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, causing a massive dislocation of residents of all races and socio-economic levels. It also devastated a Jewish community that had been nearly 250 years in the making.
Much of the attention paid to Katrina has – rightly so – focused on the woefully inadequate local, national, and federal response, and the current need for support to restore the physical infrastructure of the communities (and especially the African-American community) dislocated or destroyed by the storm. But a secondary casualty of the storm is the loss of community history, as well as documentation of the diverse experiences of those who lived through this catastrophe.
This is why, soon after the storm, JWA launched two projects to document the stories and artifacts of Katrina’s impact on the Jewish community. JWA has created Katrina’s Jewish Voices, an online collection of images, documents, and stories contributed from Jews all over the country. Additionally, in partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, JWA is gathering a collection of 100 in-depth oral history interviews with members of the Jewish communities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the Gulf Coast.
This spring, I spent some time analyzing JWA’s Katrina materials (particularly the oral histories) through a gender lens. I was interested in how these materials – contributed by both men and women – reflect the ways gender roles and expectations influenced people’s experiences during and after Katrina.
Today women’s enews published an article about the important role of women’s funds in responding to Katrina and funding relief and rebuilding efforts. One of the findings of my research was that Jewish women’s leadership post-Katrina took place not only in the more traditional context of women’s organizations, but rather in the mainstream (Jewish and non-Jewish) communal institutions. Jewish women served as professional and lay leaders in the Federation, the synagogues (five had female presidents), the Jewish Endowment Fund, as well as in secular organizations throughout the region.
The roles Jewish women played in their communities demonstrate their movement into non-traditional leadership positions, but in narrating their experiences they also appealed to traditionally feminine interest in family and nurturance. Sandy Levy of the Jewish Endowment Fund described how her work during the aftermath of Katrina solidified her professional position and amplified her sense of family connection to the community: “I feel like a mom there trying to take care of my staff, to take care of the community to the extent that I can. I certainly feel as though I’m a senior member of the professional Jewish community in New Orleans… and now I feel like I’m the mom so to speak.” Jackie Gothard, first female President of the Orthodox Beth Israel congregation, explained that her commitment to her role was in part “standing up for the capacity of women to do this job, of the capability of women to do this job,” but also declared that “my drive is more family-rooted.”
Though it’s been two years, Katrina is far from over. Over 250,000 people remain displaced, with more than 100,000 still living in “temporary” housing. The government has not fulfilled its promises of aid. It will be years before this catastrophe is truly behind us.
And there is still much to be determined about how Jewish women’s roles in the aftermath of Katrina will impact their place in their communities going forward. But the relationships forged among women who worked together during and after the storm – for example, the female presidents of the three Reform synagogues in New Orleans, who overcame the traditional rivalries of their institutions and have continued to collaborate with one another as they rebuild their communities – may yet provide models that will change the shape of the New Orleans Jewish community and the City of New Orleans itself.