Seventeen North Jerseyans boarded a plane last month to do what they could for areas of New Orleans and Mississippi still devastated from last year’s Hurricane Katrina.
Berrie Fellows David Goodman of Paramus and Larry Weiss of Wyckoff came up with the idea and UJA of Northern New Jersey helped the pair work out the logistics. The group visited synagogues in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., helped rebuild neighborhoods, and presented a check from UJA-NNJ to a synagogue in Biloxi that had been destroyed in the hurricane.
The UJA-NNJ group digs trenches at the John Henry Beck Park in Biloxi, Miss. From left are David Goodman, Robin Miller, Mark Hirschberg, David Meister, Larry Weiss, and Stu Himmelfarb.
As soon as they deplaned in New Orleans, they set to work, touring the city with local Jewish community leaders who showed first the devastation from the natural disasters (the hurricane) and the manmade disasters (the results of the broken levees).
"What you see in pictures and TV doesn’t prepare you for what’s on the ground," said Weiss. "The devastation is mindboggling. Businesses are closed up, whole streets of houses are unliveable . As much as the city has recovered to a certain extent, it’s going to take years and years."
They visited one synagogue, near one of the broken levees, that had been "completely decimated," said Goodman.
"It almost looked like it was part of the Holocaust," said Robin Miller of Tenafly. "Tallises were burnt and frayed. The bimah floated away. All the books and pictures were damaged. It was disheartening to see that."
Then the group headed to the New Orleans Chabad house where they picked up pre-High Holy Day packages of apples, honey, and other festive items, to distribute to members of the Jewish community.
Besides the physical destruction left by Katrina, there are a lot of mental health problems in New Orleans now, Weiss said.
"There’s a lot of concern that Katrina, New Orleans, and the Gulf region are no longer in the headlines," Weiss said, and that people may forget about the area’s needs.
The group handed out more than 70 packages.
"We would go up to people’s homes [to deliver the packages] and they would invite us in and were so appreciative that people were thinking of them," Miller said.
"The only help they’re getting is from within and volunteer groups coming in like ours," Goodman said.
The group set out for Biloxi on the morning of Sept. 11.
"You drive for 15, ‘0 minutes down an interstate and there’s little to no activity for miles and miles," Goodman said. "Roads overcome by dirt and downed trees, stores closed. According to the bus driver, they had [only] recently turned on the street lights."
In Biloxi, they dug trenches in a park for irrigation systems. Cameramen from a local ABC affiliate showed up to film this group from New Jersey helping with reconstruction in the South on a day when the nation was mourning the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
"All of us felt Sept. 11 was a day for us to help," Goodman said. "Our community was strengthened after Sept. 11 and we wanted to help another community get back on its feet."
Then the group visited the ruins of Cong. Beth Israel and met with its president. Beth Israel is the only Conservative shul in Mississippi and the only synagogue in southern Mississippi, and the congregants plan to build a completely new building farther inland. Goodman and Weiss presented a check for $50,000 to the Jewish community of Biloxi from UJA-NNJ, an allocation from special funds the federation raised after Katrina.
"All of a sudden, there was this realization among the group that this story being told by the Jewish leader in Biloxi was connecting us with what was going on in Israel," Goodman said. "If we didn’t do anything for Israel, this is what it would look like. [The South is] rebuilding just like Israel’s rebuilding."
Weiss also saw a parallel with the rebuilding in northern Israel and why people in both places continue to rebuild instead of moving away. "It’s home," he said.
On their last day, members of the group helped a community organization fix up people’s houses and landscapes. They cut lawns, hauled away trash, and "made houses that were wrecked have some semblance of home again," Goodman said.
As much as the trip was about repairing physical damage, it was also outreach to the people in the community to make them feel that the rest of the country had not moved on without them.
"We wanted them to know they were not forgotten; the Jewish community of New Jersey remembers them," Goodman said.