Home > D'vrei Torah > My Katrina Anniversary/Pre-Rosh Hashanah D’var Torah

My Katrina Anniversary/Pre-Rosh Hashanah D’var Torah

Thoughts on the Katrina Anniversary, High Holidays, and my Daughter’s Artwork

One of our daughter's first pre-school drawings. Ebay bidding starts at $500.

(Rabbi Linden was out of town, so I stepped in and gave the d’var torah on 9/4/10.)

Our daughter started school this week.  Very, very scary.  Well, it’s pre-school, so I’m not too concerned about her grades quite yet. But too be honest, I need a little bit of advice from more experienced parents as to how handle a certain situation. Apparently, she spends a lot of time drawing during school—art is evidently a very strong element of the curriculum, so she has been experimenting in different media- crayon, chalk, and paint which the teachers assured us was washable; however, their definition of “washable” apparently does not mean being able to come out of clothes despite being laundered and treated multiple times with Shout and Oxyclean. Nevertheless, she has become quite prolific with her pictures which are thoughtfully returned to us in her school bag at the end of each day. Thus far in one week, I believe we now have approximately 490 of our child’s drawings. I’m not quite sure what do with all of them—are we supposed to save all of them, put them on the wall, how long are we supposed to keep them? Can I give them to Nearly New? I’m trying to be a good parent- I just don’t know. And quite honestly, the pictures aren’t that good. She has a little trouble staying within the lines. When I was growing up, my dad would say, “You call that a duck? You sit back down, boychick, and you keep drawing until you get it right.” “But, Dad, I’m not even two…”

Some of the post-Katrina emails on the Shir Chadash listserve

I’m not sure how long we’re supposed to keep all of these drawings- I’m trying to get a little bit more organized- as we approach the New Year, over the last week I’ve undertaken the daunting task of cleaning out my email inbox and organizing messages. I’ve done pretty well- I’ve gone from over 9000 emails to under 50. In so doing, I have had a rather nostalgic journey through email of all that has happened during the last five years.  I’ve gone through an electronic documentation of events, issues, challenges, triumphs, news, and commentaries over what was transpiring personally and professionally, in our city and in our world, in our families and in our synagogue.  It has been a fascinating journey. Looking back on those first emails after the storm- when we were all scattered about. The first one came from Rabbi Lichtenfeld- written the Tuesday night after the storm at 12:47am, with a message of comfort and a message of hope.  At that point, the emails on the Shir Chadash listserve started pouring in-it actually overloaded it for a day- emails where everybody had evacuated to, who was safe and accounted for, and who needed help finding friends and loved ones. Then came the email with the horrifying news- the story of our members at the time, Lainie and Tad Breaux, who were forced to evacuate to Houston, leaving behind their two-day old son Zachary at Methodist Hospital. Zachary was in the Neonatal ICU on a monitor and a breathing machine.  After the storm, the unit was evacuated and Tad and Lainie didn’t know the whereabouts or the condition of their infant son. For four days. On Thursday morning, September 1, 1:25am, Natalie Barrocas Cohen posted word that her family was safe in Atlanta, but that her parents, Al and Maxine Barrocas, were still at Methodist Hospital, waiting to be evacuated. Four hours later, at 5:28 am, Gary and Kim Weiner posted a message on the Listserve to Natalie, asking for her help in trying to track down the baby. Natalie spent that morning in contact with Tad and Lainie in Houston, and trying to get in contact with Al and Maxine.  In the meantime, Natalie’s brother Isaac Barrocas was in Houston and Isaac’s wife Stephanie worked in the hospital associated with the hotel where Tad and Lainie were staying and she was able to be there for the couple offering help and support. At 10:53 that morning, Natalie posted on the Listserve that Zachary was okay and he had been transferred out the previous night on a National Guard helicopter with a private nurse. They just didn’t know where the helicopter ended up. It was a long day of waiting, but that evening at around 6:30pm, George Haas posted to us all the joyous news that the baby was found alive and well. That night, scattered all across the country, our congregation was unified as we all watched live on CNN as Lainie and Tad were reunited with their son. I remember watching it, alone in my New York hotel room, and tears were streaming down my face.  It was the first time I had cried since the storm.

The Listserve remained a chronicle of events and information and a way for us all to reach out. We were concerned for Al and Maxine who were still stuck at Methodist Hospital, for Leron Finger who was waiting to be evacuated from Tulane Hospital, and for everyone who was still unaccounted for during that first week after the storm. On September 4, Pat Klein posted the good news that synagogue contractor Doug Daigle was able to check out the building, and while there had been water inside, it had drained by that point, and that structurally the synagogue appeared to be okay.

We were scattered across the country and slowly we made our way back home. The Liebermans were first- they were home by September 4. Neil and Terri Levith and the Hendlers came back that week. I was lucky enough to get home on September 12. Sandy Lassen, the Fishers, Leon & Debbie Pesses, and Karen Lew were some of the early returnees. For the synagogue, we were faced with the awesome question of “what comes next?”  There were no easy answers, as there weren’t for many of the questions that faced us in September of 2005. We could only do what seemed right and hope that things would fall into place. As it turned out (in my opinion, which does not necessarily represent that of the synagogue or its leadership…), we made two major mistakes. The first one I realized pretty quickly. The second one- I didn’t appreciate until a couple of weeks ago.

The first mistake was made in mid-September. We were finally able to assess the condition of the building. Harvey Bordowitz was waiting to buy a plane ticket from Israel to come in for the High Holidays, despite the fact that the airport was barely open.  Bob Kutcher, who was President at the time, Mike Kancher who was Executive Director, Rabbi Lichtenfeld, and I, along with a few others were trying to figure out whether the synagogue building would be usable for Rosh Hashanah, which was just over two weeks away. We felt at the time that we just couldn’t vouch for the health and safety of the building and we didn’t think that it would be in a condition to be ready in time for the High Holidays. So, we had our “official” Rosh Hashanah service in Houston. In the meantime, there was a growing crowd of folks who had come back home who felt that there still needed to be some sort of a service here, even though the building was not fit for use. So, Karen Lew, Neil Levith, and a few others organized an “informal” service here in the gutted chapel. That service attracted a spillover crowd, a whole lot of media coverage, and the recognition of being the first Jewish service to be held in New Orleans after Katrina. We were back in our sanctuary for Yom Kippur, thanks to five brigades of the National Guard under the command of Ralph Lupin who cleaned and scrubbed the synagogue for us to get it ready. Weekly Shabbat services resumed on Shabbat Shuvah, and Shir Chadash was back in business.  In retrospect, of course, our efforts should have been on having Rosh Hashanah services here for the benefit of those who had returned to the community, but by the time we realized how many people had come back, it was too late to change the Houston plans.  Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of some dedicated people, we were able to accommodate all who needed a place to pray.

The second mistake, in my opinion, was the rush to get the sanctuary restored to its former glory. We had it scrubbed down for Yom Kippur, we got donations for new pews, and Sande Burstein and Pat Klein spearheaded the efforts in getting new carpet and furnishings. But it didn’t occur to us at the time to say, how can we make the room more spiritual? Should we be in a rush to put it back together as it was, or should we take this opportunity to make it a more comfortable environment?  I was part of the sanctuary camp for a long time but over the last year, I’ve come to appreciate the atmosphere that we’ve been able to create in the chapel and once we outgrow this room, which looks like will be sooner rather than later, we’ll have some difficult discussions about how to maintain and enhance the atmosphere that we create when we come together as a congregation. Again, we were short-sighted five years ago in our efforts to restore the way it was rather than think about what it could be, but who could ever have imagined on September 4, 2005, what this synagogue would be like on September 4, 2010? So in the wake of all of the anniversary commemorations last week, instead I choose to observe the fifth anniversary of September 4, 2005, for that was the day, we received the first indication that we would be able to return to our building.  The next day, residents were allowed back into Jefferson Parish to assess and to begin the recovery.  What came next is an incredible story of rebuilding and rebirth and I look back at the last five years and think about everything that we have been able to do as a congregation. Cleaning and renovating the building, making sure services continue, hiring a new educational director, conducting a two-year rabbinical search, reaching out to the disgruntled, occasionally becoming one of the disgruntled, doing a little disgruntling, but doing so with the shared goal of helping the synagogue survive.

Our parsha this morning is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah- as Moses continues his narrative to the people on the brink of entering the Land of Israel, Moses says that “You Stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d.” The community stands as a whole ready to enter the covenant with G-d. The community- where individuals may be imperfect and flawed, as the commentary in our Chumash indicates, when we stand together we reinforce and magnify all that is good and all that is strong within us. And over the next two weeks, we will repeat the words of the Covenant “Adonai Adonai, El Rahum Vehanun” and on Kol Nidre pray the words of “Ki hinei Cahomer” where we pray for G-d to remember the covenant and not that we are imperfect.  We pray as a whole, and we pray as a congregation. And we pray as a people unified and strengthened by all that we have accomplished together over the last five years, and there is no way that we could be a congregation as strong as as we are today if not for everything that we have done in the last five years. On September 4, 2005, or even on August 4, 2005, who would think to say that in the summer of 2010, we would welcome 14 new families with 5 children into our congregation, that we would regularly have 50 people for Friday night services and a packed sanctuary on Saturday morning under the leadership of a dynamic, energetic young rabbi who along with his wife and children have re-energized us all and have sparked a true new spirit and new song? Who would have thought that on September 4, 2005, that on September 4, 2010, the Jewish community of New Orleans would have welcomed over 1200 newcomers and be in a striking position to exceed its pre-Katrina numbers? Who would have thought on September 4, 2005, that on September 4, 2010, we would be waiting the start of the NFL season with the Saints as Super Bowl champions? Who would have thought that we could have rebounded so beautifully as a community and as a congregation? And together as a congregation, we have the strength to get through loss and the ability for collective comfort when we mourn. As a congregation, we laugh together, we cry together, we have someone to hug when we’re happy and a shoulder to lean on when we’re scared or sad.  Five years ago, when Katrina hit, we were still mourning the loss of Dr. Will Leon, a Past-President, and founder of our congregation. This morning, we’re numbed by the loss of Nat Leon, who was one of the matriarchs of this synagogue and of Sisterhood, and whose loss will leave a hole in our hearts and in the heart of this congregation. If you haven’t read Rabbi Linden’s tribute to her in this week’s Shir Chadash email, you need to read it, after Shabbat. It is a beautiful tribute to her and it shows how once again, a simple email can unite us, and bring us strength and comfort. Tomorrow, we’ll gather in our sanctuary and join together in our cemetery to say goodbye to Nat, and we’ll look around the cemetery and remember other friends and loved ones who have helped build this synagogue, and we’ll pray to G-d for the souls of the departed and for help in honoring the deeds of those who have come before us so that we can live responsibly in paving the way for those who come after. We reflect on all that we have done and all who have helped us along the way, and in their memory we approach Rosh Hashanah and the next 50 years as a Congregation with our individual flaws and imperfections which are fortunately eclipsed by our collective strength together as a people. As the New Year begins, we’re provided a blank canvas and hopefully an empty inbox to begin anew. In this New Year, let us draw the best picture we can, even if sometimes we color outside of the lines.

Will Samuels

Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA

September 4, 2010

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