New Torah scroll presented to the Beth Israel Synagogue in New Orleans
The first female President of this 104-year-old Orthodox congregation, Jackie Gothard had presided over the burial of seven Torah scrolls damaged beyond repair when the synagogue was flooded. Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, volunteers with an Israeli charity rescued seven Torah scrolls from the synagogue. Soldiers from a California unit brought a rabbi and other volunteers to the wrecked synagogue by inflatable boat and accompanied them inside as they waded through waist-high water to retrieve the boxed scrolls, which were later buried in the Beth Israel Cemetery.
Jackie Gothard was determined there would be a Yom Kippur Service, scarcely six weeks after the storm struck. She relied upon the generosity of her good friends, the Patel brothers, Hindu immigrants from India who had built a motel on land purchased from the Gothards. The Patels moved their employees out of a conference room they were sleeping in so that Beth Israel could set up for the High Holiday service. So it was that on October 12, 2005, the Beth Israel community began again. Five years later, Beth Israel has sold its ruined building, recruited a young rabbi from New York, and is holding services in a borrowed space while it nears the end of a Capital Campaign for a new sanctuary.
Its Torahs have been replaced. The first new scroll came courtesy of an energetic Los Angeles teenager, Hayley Fields, who formed a non-profit called “Every Minute Counts.” By selling watches with this phrase engraved on it for $5.00 a piece, she raised $18,000 to purchase a new Torah for Beth Israel. On August 27, one year after the storm, she and her family came to New Orleans to present the scroll to congregation.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, Jackie Gothard was not the only female leader in the Jewish communiy. All but one synagogue and many of the Jewish communal organizations had female presidents. During the months after the storm, women played a critical role in beginning the long process of stitching the community back together.
The new Beth Israel Synagogue was inaugurated in August 2012.
To learn more about the experience of the Gulf Coast Jewish Community during and after Hurricane Katrina, visit the “Katrina’s Jewish Voices” collection.