Disaster relief experts know the story. In the wake of a catastrophe like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a stricken city or town will be deluged with money, aid and attention that recedes all too soon when public sympathy weakens or is drawn elsewhere. Of course, there are exceptions.
Like movie star Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right non-profit is rebuilding the city’s devastated Ninth Ward, a New York-based Jewish organization has made a commitment to the Crescent City’s recovery.
There is a narrative that Yeshiva University has shifted to the right, religiously-speaking. I attended the recent leadership retreat sponsored by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), an annual get-together in Orlando, FL at the ChampionsGate resort, where I encountered a whole other face of the Yeshiva and University that demonstrates how that perception is incorrect.
One of the enduring images of Hurricane Katrina for the Jewish community of New Orleans, and well beyond, was of a kipah-wearing rescue worker, in waist-high water, carrying one of seven Torahs out of the sanctuary of the century-old Orthodox congregation, Beth Israel.
The Torahs did not make it; water-logged beyond repair, they ultimately were buried in the synagogue’s cemetery, along with 3,000 prayer books.
Few people are more intimately familiar with water’s destructive potential than Rabbi Uri Topolosky.
When Hurricane Katrina unleashed massive flooding, the rabbi’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel New Orleans in Metairie, La., was one of the many victims. Water destroyed Beth Israel’s building, Torah scrolls and, somewhat ironically, even its ritual bath.
But last month, while attending a conference, as part of a New Orleans delegation working to rebuild the mikveh, Rabbi Topolosky had a personal encounter with water’s healing potential.
When floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina started rising in Biloxi, Miss., in 2005, a custodian at nearby Keesler Air Force Base raced to the local Jewish chaplain and told him about Jewish objects that he believed were kept in a storage closet on the base.
Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, prompting an outpouring of financial aid from the Jewish community, a fuller picture is first emerging about how the United Jewish Communities has spent about one-fourth of the $21.5 million it has raised.
That picture reveals the difficulties the organization has had in determining where the money would best be used, the thinking behind the allocation process, and the complexity of working with the federal government and other relief organizations.