Home > D'vrei Torah > “The Rebuilding Starts Now”- d’var torah from 10-8-05 (1st Shabbat service held after Katrina)

“The Rebuilding Starts Now”- d’var torah from 10-8-05 (1st Shabbat service held after Katrina)

This was my d’var torah from Shabbat Shuvah, October 8, 2005, the first Shabbat service that we held after Katrina. It had been six weeks since the storm. A few days prior, several congregants put together an impromptu service for Rosh Hashanah, which was the only Rosh Hashanah service held in New Orleans.  I was determined that we needed to start holding Shabbat services again, even if there were only a few people back in town. I spray painted a piece of cardboard and put a sign outside saying that we were holding Shabbat services. 12 people showed up that morning. The next day, representatives from several National Guard units showed up to help clean our sanctuary and social hall to get it ready for Yom Kippur. It was so important that we start holding services again to help restore a sense of normalcy and to give people an outlet– to have a break from what they were having to undergo as they rebuilt their homes and their lives following the storm.

The Rebuilding Starts Now

Synagogue Playground, 9-12-05

Damage on the synagogue playground

Can you believe it’s been six weeks? I had to come to services that Friday night, and I didn’t know until then that Katrina had shifted tracks. George Fuhrman and Jake Schwartz were talking about what they were going to do. I said, “What’s going on?” and they told me Katrina was on its way and they were figuring out whether to stay or go. They said, “Ah, we’ll figure it out in the morning.”  So, the next morning, in shul, I went up to George and said, “What’s the call?” He said, “We’re leaving.” Six weeks ago. It’s almost a cliché to say life as we know it has changed so much since then.

Obviously, there’s been a lot on our minds over the last couple of months, so you probably don’t remember a whole lot about the torah portion when we last got together for Shabbat. It was parashat Ekev. Moses was giving his farewell address to the people of Israel. He had recapped the ten commandments in the parsha the week prior, and he was going over the journey and the laws along the way. Moses said, “Remember the long way that the Lord your G-d has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that he might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not.” He continues, “For the Lord is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill: a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.”

The sanctuary pews following Katrina

The sanctuary pews following Katrina

For the people of Israel, they were coming to the end of a long journey through the wilderness.  At that point, an entire generation of people had died out, so those that were ready to make the journey had been born and raised in the desert. The only way of life they knew was wandering in the desert going from place to place. Eating manna. Following a pillar of fire. Now, their entire way of life was going to change, and Moses had been giving them instructions as to how to make their new lives better. Ahead of them lay a new life in a land of milk and honey. It was up to each individual person to determine how he or she was going to make life better.

During the High Holidays, we are offered a clean slate with which to begin anew. Never has that been truer than now. The lives that we had known six weeks ago are completely different. I was taking a look at my appointment book from a couple of weeks ago. Monday night- synagogue board meeting. Tuesday night- Hillel board meeting. Wednesday- Meeting at the Ogden. Thursday- Ogden After Hours followed by a weekly dinner with my group of friends. Saturday night- Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile. Scattered among the meetings was working on other projects, helping to arrange High Holiday Honors, calling up potential daveners, and every so often actually going to work in my office.  And, if I was really lucky, planning a social life.  How things have changed in a little over a month. I spent the first week after the storm in New York mostly laying in my hotel room with one hand on the tv remote and the other on my computer. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. “Well, I can’t go back to the city… Maybe I’ll go cross country for a couple of months. Maybe I’ll go to Israel. Maybe I’ll volunteer somewhere for the Red Cross. Maybe I’ll go on a drunken bender.”


All of the Talisim needed to be replaced

For the first two weeks, I had an entirely clean slate. I was in New York, St Louis, and Austin. I put together the revised synagogue database because it kept me busy and kept me sane—it was something to do, and it had to be done. From Austin I went to Houston, and I was amazed at what the Houston Jewish community had done for New Orleans. And what the New Orleans Federation was doing to make sure that our community was safe and accounted for. Their war room (a conference room at the Houston Federation) was an incredible site with tons of people, mostly volunteers, making phone calls, arranging housing, money, supplies, meals, resources, information. Anything to be a link to the members of the New Orleans community. I had planned to be a part of all of that—to do what I could to help with Federation. I figured I would go between Houston and Austin and help out where I could. First I had to pick up my car, which had been brought from the New Orleans airport to Baton Rouge. I flew in to Baton Rouge, got my car, and I figured okay, let me just drive into Metairie to check on my house then go back to Texas. If there’s too much traffic or if it gets too late, I’ll just head back to Houston.

Work Beginning in the Sanctuary

Work beginning in the sanctuary, 9-15-05

I got back to Metairie on September 12, and shockingly my house was okay. I stayed there that night—I was the only person on the block. It was eerily quiet. Over the next few days, I saw the city come to life with more and more things opening up. Loews and a Bud’s Broiler on Tuesday. The first grocery store on Wednesday. A gas station on Thursday. Things were beginning to spring to life. For me, it was the start of the hardest work that I’ve ever done. Physical, exhausting labor—dealing with my parents’ house, my brother’s house, my office, restaurant, and of course, the synagogue. I was blessed that my house was okay, so I had to do what I could to help others in need. My parents asked me, “Why are you doing so much for the synagogue?” My answer: “Because I can. And it has to be done.”

Serving Meals 2

Working the food line

I took a lot of video that first week back. Unbelievable images. Photos that still seem unreal. I had been a complete news glutton for two weeks, but nothing prepared me for actually being back in town and seeing things with my own eyes. Talking to people, hearing stories. I was talking with this one lady in the Marigny. She’s in her 60s, and she stayed through the storm and she was telling me absolutely incredible stories about the days afterward. But those residents who stayed in the Marigny took care of each other. They developed a great community. They made sure that everybody had food and water. There was one person who had a pick up truck and every day drove around and hauled off people’s trash. There was a person who created Radio Marigny and played New Orleans favorites through a generator-powered loudspeaker giving a musical rebirth to an otherwise eerily quiet town. The lady I was speaking with in the Marigny told me she got at least one hot meal every day—over by Harrahs. There was a Christian charity that came in and was cooking thousands of hot meals 3 times a day to rescue workers, military, police, medical personnel, first responders, residents—whoever wanted or needed to eat could come and get a hot meal. I went over there, and there were a number of tents set up and a huge line of people waiting to go through the buffet. There were about 10 huge propane-powered grills on which members of the military and civilian volunteers were cooking up steaks, chicken, burgers, hot dogs, shrimp, ribs, all of which had been donated. Dr. Phil donated a bunch of burgers and buns. Truck after truck came in with food and supplies.

At the grill

Military workers at the grill

I knew I had to help there. I went to the kitchen area and asked the first person I saw who looked semi-official, “How can I help?”  He responded, “Offer bottled water to the people cooking and see if they need anything.”  I looked around, found supplies, and went to work.  I commandeered some trash bags (commandeer is the new buzz word), and went around the tables and picked up trash. I lugged cases of drinks and refilled coolers. I restocked condiments. I cleaned tables. I had no instructions. It needed to be done. Later, I asked the same official-looking guy if there was anything specific I could do. He said, “You’re doing fine. If you see something that you think needs to be done, go ahead and do it.” It was an incredible experience, and it was my way to thank the thousands upon thousands of people who have been working to rebuild this city.

My Parents' House after the storm

My parents' house after the storm

And we will rebuild. Over the four weeks that I’ve been back, I’ve seen tremendous growth in Metairie. People are returning home. They’re cleaning out debris, they’re rebuilding their lives, and they’re determined to be here. The same thing will happen in New Orleans. It will take much longer, but the city will grow. We all must do our part to rebuild the city, the Jewish community, and this synagogue. We all have suffered loss—whether it’s property, loved ones, a way of life, your favorite restaurant, or a weekly mah-jongg game, our ways of life are dramatically different from how they were six weeks ago. G-d has tested us with hardships, but during these High Holidays we stand with the ability to forge for us a good land—a land with Milk and Honey. This community can be stronger than ever if each of us plays a part. We will all have to do things that we would never have considered doing six weeks ago. Doing what needs to be done because it needs to be done. I was at my parents’ house coordinating the sheet rock removal and mold remediation. There was a crew of people taking out everything that had been 5 feet under water. The furniture, carpet, mementos, etc. They brought in someone to do the kitchen. A young woman who went through each cabinet pulling out food, dish towels, cookware, nasty aprons, cleaning supplies that had been covered in the toxic gumbo, to use another new buzzword. I was talking with her as we were figuring out what could be salvaged, and I asked her what she had done before Katrina. She told me she was a nurse at Baptist Hospital. And here she was going from kitchen to kitchen cleaning out the nastiest stuff that I had ever encountered. She was doing what needed to be done because it needed to be done.

Neil Levith, Esther Hendler, Debbie Pesses, Danielle Spadoni and I went through a ton of moldy books from the library figuring out what could be salvaged or what needed to be buried. None of us wanted to do that. These books were covered with the nastiest goop that I’ve ever seen. But it was smelling up the social hall, and it needed to be clean. So, we did what needed to be done because it needed to be done.

Cleaning the synagogue's exterior

National Guardsmen help clean the synagogue grounds (see our sign in the background)

Things are going to be different. You’ll go to a restaurant and there will be a long line and there will be crappy service but they have only one or two people working, but don’t you dare complain. They worked hard to re-open and they’re working hard to be open to accommodate those people who want to go out to eat. If you go to a restaurant, find the manager, and thank him or her for being open.

We’re going to have to adapt to a different way of life. We’re lucky to have Challahs today following services. Dorignacs lost their bread baker so it was by a fluke that we were able to snag Challahs. It’s going to be a while before we have a Kiddush lunch. It’s going to be a while before we have a clean building. It’s going to be a while before the debris is picked up. If you feel the urge to complain, tell us what you’re going to do to help make things right. We’re so lucky that we were able to have Rosh Hashanah services in our building and it was through the persistence of Karen Lew and Neil Levith to step up and say “we will work to make it happen. What can we do.” Rather than complain about what was or wasn’t being done, they stepped up and recruited people and pulled together an incredible service. They did what needed to be done because it needed to be done. We did a similar thing in Houston and the JCC was tremendous and Rabbi Lichtenfeld is truly a mensch. There was a much smaller crowd than we thought, but we pulled it off, because it needed to be done. And there was one person there who shall remain nameless and I can tell you this story because there’s only one other person in this room right now who has a clue as to whom I’m referring, but this person said to me following the services for which I spent days and nights learning, practicing, and helping to organize, “Oh, it’s a shame there aren’t any bimah flowers,” and it took every fiber of my being not to say or do something that I may have later regretted, but probably would not have regretted in the slightest.

National Guardsmen help clean the sanctuary

National Guardsmen help clean the sanctuary the day after this dvar torah was given

We are all going to have to work harder than ever before so that we can rebuild this congregation and this community. It’s going to be tough. But it can be done and it will be done because it needs to be done. We’re all going to step up. We need to clean this building before Yom Kippur. We’re going to need people to give divrei torah each Shabbat for the next couple of months before Rabbi Lichtenfeld gets back. We need people to volunteer to lead services or read torah or chant a haftorah.  There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but it has to be done.

This morning in parashat Vayelekh, we read the final commandment of the 613 mitzvot listed in the torah. “Veh-eetah ceetvu lachem et ha shirah hazot.”  “And now, write for you this song.” From this, we derive the mitzvah of each of us taking part in writing our own torah scroll. Just as the ways of life of the people of Israel were about to change dramatically, they took the words of torah to enter a land and to make the best of a new situation in a land flowing with milk and honey. Our ways of life have changed. But we have the ability to write a new song, a Shir Chadash, and we have the ability to create a new community—one that is better and stronger, and one that can flow with milk and honey. As we enter this New Year, may G-d give us the blessings of chazak ve-ematz, to “be strong and to be brave.” And let each of us make the commitment to write our own song, to do what needs to be done because it needs to be done. And together let us be strong, and let us rebuild. Amen.

Will Samuels

Shir Chadash, October 8, 2005

Categories: D'vrei Torah
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