Jewish ‘reconstructionists’ Local groups help struggling New Orleans

Jewish ‘reconstructionists’ Local groups help struggling New Orleans

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city is still recovering, and area residents are still trying to help.

Above and at right, ten students from Torah Academy of Bergen County volunteered in reconstruction efforts in New Orleans in October. UJA-NNJ is leading a trip to the city later this month.

Torah Academy of Bergen County took 10 of its students to the city in October as part of a community outreach program. And as it has done twice before, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey is sending a group of volunteers later this month to lend a hand.

David Goodman, a Tulane University alumnus and a Berrie Fellow from Fair Lawn, said that while the city’s tourist center in the French Quarter is up and running again, outlying neighborhoods are still struggling to rebuild. Goodman and Larry Weiss, another Berrie Fellow, will lead a group of 33 volunteers south on Jan. ‘0 to ”.

Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, welcomed the help.

"It’s very meaningful," he told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday. "We are fortunate that we are blessed by this constant stream of volunteer groups."

The city’s Jewish population numbered 9,500 before Katrina and now hovers just above 7,000. Down by a third at one point, the Jewish community is now rebounding, thanks to the work of grassroots organizations, Weil said. In the past two years more than 500 Jews have moved into the city, which is visited on averaged by one volunteer group a week through the federation.

"The stream is continuous. It’s very moving," he said. "It’s tikkun olam."

Although volunteers are flocking to the city, Stuart Himmelfarb, director of UJA-NNJ’s Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, said that volunteers on the federation’s two previous trips to New Orleans have been "shocked by the amount of work still to be done."

This month’s federation group will tour the Jewish areas of the city; do yard work in the heavily damaged Lakeview section; help the group Just The Right Attitude distribute food to needy families; and repair homes with the group St. Bernard’s Parish.

"If you drive up a street that hast least the lawns being cut, it’s a lot more presentable and upbeat than overgrown yards," Himmelfarb said of the work the group will do in Lakeview.

Similarly, the TABC students visited day school children, visited a Jewish nursing home, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and toured Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue. The shul’s building had been heavily damaged and congregants now meet in a Reform synagogue until they can rebuild.

"It was interesting for our boys to see Orthodox and Reform coexisting so beautifully and harmoniously," said Rabbi Joshua Kahn, TABC’s director of student activities, who led the trip.

The students were unsure what to expect heading in, Kahn said. Many thought they would see total devastation.

"When we saw the people of New Orleans and the horrors which they had faced, we realized that what they had lived through transcended anything which we could relate to," said 17-year-old senior Yitzy Feman of the trip.

Reconstruction efforts have been continuous, said Goodman. Even though the city has not yet completely recovered, he expected that the volunteer work would soon switch from physical repairs to more volunteer work in soup kitchens

"The needs are starting to change," he said. "This may be the last time we’re really focused on rebuilding and capital improvement. Social services, more of the food pantries, and more of the touching-people-type activities are going to be a little bit more important going forward."

United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the nation’s Jewish federations, has turned its focus to dealing with depression and mental illness stemming from post-hurricane stress in New Orleans residents.

"That’s really where the need is starting to flow to," Goodman said.

He expects UJA-NNJ to continue sending trips to Louisiana as long as interest remains. That this month’s trip is the largest yet demonstrates to him that the community is still attracted to helping the southern community.

But returning the city to what it used to be isn’t the goal, said New Orleans’ Weil. Beth Israel synagogue will design a new home appropriate for the ‘1st century, he said, and the rest of the city will continue to move forward.

"We won’t bounce back to where we were, but we are bouncing," he said.

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