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Hurricane Katrina: Community Responsibility and Tikkun Olam

The Kabbalah (Jewish mystical school of thought) teaches that God created the world by projecting a beam of light into the universe and then created vessels to hold the light. But the divine light was too strong for the vessels and they shattered into bits. These bits and holy sparks scattered into the world. Our job as humans is to redeem the holy sparks through prayer and action. In doing so, we act as partners with God in the work of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

This Go and Learn guide explores Hurricane Katrina as an example of how Jews respond to catastrophe. In our featured document, “Beth Israel Torah Ceremony,” reporter Gail Chalew, a Jewish resident of New Orleans, tells us the story of one thirteen year old girl, Hayley Fields of Los Angeles, who came up with her own unique way of redeeming the sparks.


Enduring Understandings

  • Acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) are central to Judaism and what it means to be Jewish.
  • Thirteen-year-old Haley Fields’ act of tikkun olam should inspire us to act when disaster strikes, even if it’s not in our own community.

Essential Questions

  • What acts of tikkun olam do you perform in your own everyday life? What opportunities are there to expand your acts of tikkun olam?
  • Even though tikkun olam are acts that we perform for others, how do they help us too?
Introductory essay(s)

Introduction: Beth Israel Torah Ceremony by Gail Chalew

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities in August 2005, it changed many lives irrevocably. Katrina and the flooding that followed devastated homes, neighborhoods, and community infrastructures. It scattered families and friends throughout the United States, wreaking havoc on people's emotional lives and their senses of “place” and “home.”

Jews from all over the United States have joined in the momentous job of repairing and rebuilding the communities affected by Katrina. Stories of Jewish individuals and groups traveling to the region to help are numerous. JWA has brought many of these stories together with those of direct victims of the hurricane to an online collection, Katrina's Jewish Voices.

One teenage girl, horrified by images of the flooded New Orleans Congregation Beth Israel, felt compelled to act. Thirteen year old Hayley Fields of Los Angeles decided to raise money to buy a new Torah for the synagogue. She started a non-profit organization, Every Minute Counts, and sold watches with that phrase printed on it, raising $18,000. This, along with contributions from other donors motivated by Hayley's initiative, was used to purchase a Torah and its dressings for Beth Israel. In August 2006, just before the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hayley and her family flew to New Orleans to help dedicate the new Torah. Hayley's decision to act helped mobilize her family, her synagogue community, and the larger Jewish community of Los Angeles.

There are many other stories from Katrina's Jewish Voices that broaden our understanding of the range of ways the Jewish community has responded to this catastrophe, and demonstrate how both the helpers and the helped have been changed in the process. During winter vacation 2005, nine teens and eight parents traveled to the Gulf Coast as part of the group TELEM: Jewish Youth Making a Difference, a program sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. They spent four days gutting a severely damaged house owned by a young African-American couple who were expecting a baby. From morning till evening, the team worked together to haul away debris and rip the walls down to their studs to remove the mold. When the grateful husband, Nate, found out that his helpers were Jewish, he exclaimed, ” But I thought Jews only helped other Jews.” This remark made a strong impression on teens and adults alike and increased their commitment to helping non-Jews in the future. (Read more at http://katrina.jwa.org/object/10.)

Although they were not motivated by the promise of rewards, Jewish relief workers consistently remarked that they themselves had been transformed in the process of helping others. Oral historian Rosalind Hinton described the gifts she has found in the interviews she is conducting with Jews directly affected by the storm. (Read more about Katrina's Jewish Voices Oral History Project.):

Many people who have come to New Orleans to "help" have found that they are the ones receiving the gift. In some ways it is similar to being at the bedside of a dying person. There is richness to the experience, a kind of in-touchness with both ultimacy and the limits of being human, both at the same time. It is hard to explain what people have to offer who have lived so intensely over the past year…No one went through Katrina unchanged, at least not yet. They have a lot to offer other Jews, and other Americans.

As the Jewish community continues to help repair the shattered bits wrought by Katrina, we have opportunities to grow and learn about the power of Tikkun Olam and the complex and infinite lessons it has to teach us.

Lesson Plans by Age Group
Document studies

Beth Israel Torah Ceremony

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Excerpt from Beth Israel Torah Ceremony by Gail Chalew

Though nothing can erase from our minds those chilling post–storm photos of Beth Israel's Torahs being carried through chest–deep water, the dedication of a 14–year–old girl from Los Angeles, combined with the dedication of Beth Israel's lay leadership, has resulted in images of hope and rebirth that will buoy the Jewish community in its recovery process.

On Sunday, August 27, 200 community members were privileged to see a new Torah carried lovingly down West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie from Chabad Center to Gates of Prayer Congregation (where Beth Israel is now holding services in its chapel) as the centerpiece of a parade of men, women and children dancing to joyous klezmer music.

They watched as the empty ark was opened and the Torah, a gift of Young Israel of Century City, Ca., and the Los Angeles Jewish community, was placed lovingly in its new home. They kissed the Torah as it was carried throughout the chapel. They listened to Eddie Gothard, past president of Beth Israel, read from the synagogue's new Torah for the first time, under a chuppah (canopy) and surrounded by children. And they heard how one impassioned teenager can make a difference.

Recalling that she was “horrified and consumed by the TV images” of Beth Israel under water, Haley Fields, then just 13 years old, felt compelled to act. She said, “It was incomprehensible to me how a synagogue could be without a Torah. It is a tree of life for the Jewish people.”

Determined to raise money to buy Beth Israel a Torah, Haley created a charitable organization, Every Minute Counts, with the help of her family. She began to sell watches emblazoned with that phrase at her day school and synagogue and set up displays at kosher restaurants in the area. Soon her synagogue, Young Israel, took it on as a project as did several other congregations in Los Angeles.

In the space of a few months, Haley had sold 3,500 watches and raised $18,000.

This money, supplemented with contributions from her synagogue and other donors in the Los Angeles area, was used to purchase a Torah, two Torah covers (one just for High Holiday use), and a silver breastplate and crowns.

When Haley was speaking, Jackie Gothard, Beth Israel's president and the driving force keeping it going this past year, welled up with tears.

Gothard recalled, “At first, after the storm we cried and cried. Then we got to work. Whenever we got discouraged, we remembered that it was only a flood; that we did not suffer through a pogrom or the Holocaust or the Inquisition or some act of anti–Semitism. It was only a flood.”

The generosity of others—locally, nationally, and internationally—has strengthened the Beth Israel congregants as well. People came to clean up the synagogue; others provided prayerbooks and ritual objects.

And Haley provided a Torah.

Beth Israel Update

The floodwaters destroyed everything inside Beth Israel, including the seven Torahs and every prayerbook, which were all buried. However, the building is structurally sound and could be renovated.

While it is deciding its future, Beth Israel is holding services in the chapel at Gates of Prayer. Rabbi Loewy offered this home, for as long as Beth Israel wants it, saying, “A Jewish community is healthy, when all expressions of Jewish life are available and in positive relationships with one another. Gates of Prayer is pleased to help Beth Israel return to strength. Ultimately, we all benefit.”

Beth Israel is relying primarily on visiting rabbis and knowledgeable lay people to lead services, which are held several times a month.

To facilitate a steady flow of visitors, Beth Israel has purchased a private home near Gates of Prayer where visiting clergy and lay people can stay for Shabbat. Because of zoning regulations, religious services cannot be held in this home.

Gail Chalew, "Beth Israel Torah Ceremony." Katrina's Jewish Voices, Object #384.

Teacher resources

Katrina's Jewish Voices

Learn more by visiting JWA’s online exhibit, Katrina’s Jewish Voices.


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Matt Lehrman, “Tzedek Means Justice.” Katrina's Jewish Voices, Object #662.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Hurricane Katrina: Community Responsibility and Tikkun Olam." (Viewed on March 4, 2024) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/jan07>.