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The Jewish community's finest moment

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the organized American Jewish community rallied.  The National Disaster Committee of the United Jewish Communities quickly raised and distributed $28 million in aid for Jewish and non-Jewish communities, about $16 million of which went to the local Jewish institutions serving the greater New Orleans area.  This was, as Etta Prince-Gibson notes in a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, in sharp contrast to the federal government's slow and ineffective response. 

Deena Gerber, Executive Director of the Jewish Family Service in New Orleans, helped distribute some of the UJC aid money.  The Jewish Family Service provided a $700 cash payment to any Jewish individual affected by Katrina.  This proved to be crucial for evacuees who had left their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs and those who could not access their bank accounts or credit cards. In 2006, Gerber was interviewed as a part of the JWA's Katrina's Jewish Voices project, in which she discusses how important the aid from the national Jewish community was to sustaining local relief efforts.

People often say that stressful situations bring out the best, or the worst, in people.  For the multiple Jewish communities in New Orleans, Katrina brought out the best; as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities united in the face of disaster.  Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue, was completely destroyed in the storm.  Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue, opened its doors to the the Orthodox community, inviting them to use their rooms and offices until Beth Israel was rebuilt.

Four years later, they are still sharing a roof.  In a conversation I had last week with Roselle Ungar, former Interim Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, she spoke about this remarkable collaboration between the communities.  Ungar explained that Congregation Beth Israel is planning to build their new shul on land currently owned by Gates of Prayer, and that a committee has been formed to plan a community mikvah on the Conservative synagogue's land that will be open to the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.  "That's progressive," she added.

Ungar has definitely noticed a change among the different Jewish communities in New Orleans. "Things are happening that are much more collaborative than they ever were before," she said.  "I hope it will last.  It's definitely better than before Katrina, but I don't think it's as perfect as it was immediately after.  Then again, that arose out of necessity."

In their 2006 interviews, both Ungar and Gerber expressed the feelings of comfort and security that being Jewish provided them in the midst of the crisis.  While experiencing loss and displacement, Ungar and Gerber derived strength from working and connecting with the Jewish community.

"It was one of the Jewish community's finest moments," Deena Gerber told me last week. "I feel really fortunate to have lived it."

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"You can see the mark on the doorframe where the water stopped," our group's guide said.

I raised my arm to point it out to the other visitors. It was easily 10 feetabove the ground.

The Board members of the JWAwere touring the Beth Israel Congregation building in New Orleans as part of our follow-up to the "Katrina's Jewish Voices" project. We were from all over the country, but only one of us had been in New Orleans during the storm.

As I raised my arm, I felt for the first time theforceof the surging water, the sense of helplessness in the face of a power I could not control, alter, or appeal to for mercy. "How do you overcome something that big?" I wondered to myself. "What would I do if I were here then?" I knew I would not have the resources as an individual to do anything but flee in fear.

Thank you for reminding us of the people of New Orleans.

What the Beth Israel and the Gates of Prayer congregations have done collaboratively in response to this disaster gives me hope that in community we can find common higher ground, that in a civilized society we are never alone, and that together we can find new purpose and faith to build a greater civilization. I won't forget that moment in the lobby, but I also won't forget what other brave and generouspeoplehave done to further this hope.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "The Jewish community's finest moment." 26 August 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2018) <>.


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