In the Face of Katrina: A Community Persists

by Baila Olidort - HOUSTON, TEXAS

September 5, 2005

The indiscriminate invasion by Hurricane Katrina into the lives of its victims leaves in its wake dislocation and trauma across the board. And yet the damage is of such variety, each family must feel itself, in some sense, an island alone as it tries to begin to regroup from the disruption into the particular rhythm of its life.

Presently it seems that nothing is more certain than the uncertainty itself. No one knows what will be tomorrow, next week, next month. And while authorities are opening designated hurricane-hit parishes for several hours this week to residents who want to verify the status of their homes and salvage some of their belongings, uncertainty looms large even for those who will be fortunate enough to find everything in tact.

Will New Orleans make a comeback? Will people return in numbers strong enough to make it once again a viable city? How serious will the government be about rebuilding? And when?

These are the big questions that beg answers, and all those affected are desperate for information to give them some clarity about how at least to imagine, if not to plan, their future. But for now, Chabad representatives of the New Orleans/Metairie Jewish communities have been encouraging people not to make long term decisions, and are helping them instead with interim solutions so that they have a roof over their heads, jobs and schools for their children.

It’s been a harrowing week for the Chabad reps to New Orleans, who, while surviving their own ordeals, have been madly working their cell phones and email communications trying to locate every member of their community especially those most vulnerable, and concerning themselves with the nuts and bolts of basic survival aid to those in need. With a Jewish population of about 10,000, many of New Orleans’s Jews have turned to Chabad immediately, specifically to the Rivkin Rabbis—Zelig, Yochanan and Mendel of New Orleans, and to Rabbi Yossi Nemes of Metairie, for help. Chabad lost no time networking with fellow shluchim in cities nearest the affected areas, which have become hubs of help in the form of everything from apartments and job offers to information on missing friends and neighbors.

Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Chabad representative to Houston Texas which was designated by the federal government as the number two disaster relief city, says, “We are trying to help people get past the initial crisis of dislocation.” It’s nearly a week now since the first of those affected have evacuated, and “there’s a limit to how long they can stay at a hotel, or sleep on the sofa in their friend’s living room,” he explains. “Now what?”

Chabad of Houston thus organized the first local Jewish community volunteer effort, setting up a database which by Friday morning had garnered more than 150 submissions of offers for help by the local community. “There has been a wonderful outpouring of help and support by the community,” he says. “The phones and emails haven’t stopped with people offering hospitality, jobs, food, clothing, and all forms of assistance. We are working to match those offers with the needs as they come to us.” Several real estate owners have offered apartments rent free for a few months, to evacuees. That, says Lazaroff, and “donations of furniture, gift cards to national dept stores where evacuees can buy some clothing and basic necessities just to help get back on their feet,” are, along with donations of funds, most needed now, and can be made online at Jewish Hurricane Relief Fund.

In Houston, and in Memphis, TN, which has also taken a large number of evacuees, Chabad has been meeting and sharing information with their local Jewish Federations to coordinate the most comprehensive relief effort. On Saturday night, some thirty evacuees met at the home of Rabbi Levi Klein, Chabad representative to Memphis. “We wanted all the evacuees whom we had contact with and who were in Memphis to meet each other and exchange contact info,” he explains. “We also wanted to find out what their most pressing individual needs are, and to provide them with information about all the organizations in town and what they can offer them in terms of practical assistance.”

One was desperate to go back home to take care of urgent matters, but needed a generator. Another needed his car repaired, and another needed medical attention. Those with children who had already begun the new school year, needed to place them in schools, and in both Houston and Memphis, the local Jewish Day Schools opened enrollment to the children of evacuees, tuition free. These are just some examples, explains Rabbi Klein, of the range of needs that are being met to ease the overwhelming stress and the trauma. As in Houston, in Memphis too, says Klein, the response by the local community has been positively generous. Klein has made available a list of physicians who have offered their services free of charge to evacuees.

Bluma Rivkin, Chabad representative to New Orleans for the last thirty years, who, with eleven members of her immediate family is staying at the home of Chabad Shluchim Rabbi Shimon and Chienna Lazaroff in Houston, told that she wants the people of her community to know that they are absolutely not alone. "We're here for them," she says, adding that the larger Jewish community--from Boston and Pittsburgh, Nevada, California and beyond, has also kicked in with offers of help. A website set up by the Rivkins, posts daily updates with relevant information about missing people, job offers, housing offers, and invitations by Chabad communities nationwide to Jewish families that have been evacuated. "People from the broader American Jewish community really want to do something and have made generous offers--some have even asked to 'adopt a family,'" she says.

Amid the dislocation and chaos there are moments of real joy and gratitude. Bluma and the other Shluchim have been working nearly round the clock using every phone at their disposal to try to locate every community member they could, one by one. “Every time we locate another person from our community, and find out that they are alive and safe, we have another reason to be thankful.”

After several days of no word from one person whose last communication was a frantic voicemail he left last week saying he’s stranded on the roof top of his flooded house, Chabad Shluchim feared the worst. Today, an upbeat Rabbi Nemes told, that after trying to make contact with him for days, they finally heard from him, and were “ecstatic.” Though his ordeal was traumatic, and his rescue less than smooth, many members of the community were simply joyful to hear that Alan Krilov was alive and safe.

Unfortunately, say the Shluchim, several have been found dead in their apartments and one died during the evacuation. Arrangements to retrieve the bodies for proper Jewish burial are being coordinated.

They’ve been evacuated from the physical space of their community, but the Chabad Shluchim from New Orleans/Metairie are continuing to serve their community members, dispersed though they are. “People want to stay together as a community,” says Bluma, and “they are contacting us either to let us know where they are, or to find out about friends and neighbors. People feel a need to be with familiar friends, especially those that are in the same situation as they are."

Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, head Chabad representative to Louisiana, has been working closely with Lubavitch Headquarters in New York which is coordinating a crisis management committee to help identify areas of need so that efforts are not duplicated. “Primarily, we’re looking to locate everyone in the Jewish community, to make sure they are ok, and to set up a system to facilitate helping them in every way possible.”

Zelig and Bluma, who are deeply invested with thirty years of building and nurturing Jewish life in New Orleans, (three of their married children have joined their ranks), make a point of exuding optimism through the trauma.

“As soon as the opportunity allows, we are going back to rebuild,” says Rabbi Rivkin. Until then, the Shluchim to New Orleans will continue serving the community and, he says, “doing the Rebbe’s work” in exile.

Tax-exempt donations can be made online Jewish Hurricane Relief Fund or by mail, payable to: Jewish Hurricane Relief Fund, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY ll2l3

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