Volunteers flock to Big Easy to ease suffering

Volunteers flock to Big Easy to ease suffering

Eighteen months after "The Flood," as it is known in New Orleans, Rabbi David Bockman worries that his beloved city will end up like "Anytown, USA" instead of the unique, culturally vibrant place he recalls from his six years as spiritual leader of Cong. Chevra Philiam. The synagogue, located in Lakewood, an affluent Jewish part of the city near the breached 17th Street levee, has since merged with Cong. Shir Hadash, a Conservative congregation in suburban Metarie, directly across the canal. Both areas suffered damage

One of about 30 rabbis to visit New Orleans last month on a mission sponsored by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Bockman was dismayed to find that while parts of the city have rebounded, others remain virtually unchanged, with many neighborhoods still devastated. But the biggest disappointment, he found, was what appears to have happened to the indigenous culture — the way music, food and different religious groups blended over centuries to create a rich brew that "doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world."

Today, said Bockman, a trumpet player who first discovered New Orleans through music, many of the newer restaurants are associated with large national chains. It is the older, more established eateries and music clubs that continue to struggle.

Bockman’s desire to raise awareness of the city’s plight motivated him to sponsor a resolution authorizing the mission at the Rabbinical Assembly convention last March in Mexico City, the association’s first gathering since Hurricane Katrina. Now spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Israel of the Northern Valley in Bergenfield, Bockman was determined that his rabbinic colleagues learn firsthand about New Orleans’ historic Jewish culture, now severely weakened by the loss of population to the area. About a third of the city’s Jewish population that left in the wake of the flood has yet to return. The largest segment of the community to flee is those with school-age children, raising concerns about the future of New Orleans Jewry.

Another goal of the RA mission, he said, was to "show people in New Orleans that people elsewhere are thinking about them," that the Jewish community is focused, which he hopes will have a positive impact on interfaith relations; finally, Bockman wanted to give the New Orleans Jewish community "a shot in the arm."

Rabbi Gordon Tucker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., and a member of the faculty of the department of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was traveling with the group, presented a public lecture one evening at Shir Hadash. "We brought them scholarship of international repute," said Bockman, one way to let the Jewish community in New Orleans know it’s not forgotten.

Participating in community service projects that included helping to rebuild a charter school and catalogue donated books for its library, as well as meeting with local officials who pleaded for more money and volunteers to help with reconstruction, Bockman hopes, will spur the rabbis, who came from around the United States, to take the message back home. In the upcoming months, he envisions congregational trips to the region and plans for local events to raise much-needed funds.

The Conservative rabbinic group is not the only one that is making a concerted effort to keep New Orleans on the communal radar screen.

Last month, the JCC Association, the New York-based agency for Jewish community centers across North America, held its annual board retreat and professional leadership conference for JCC executive directors in the embattled city. To get a sense of the scope of the problem, the groups first toured blighted areas, including the breach at the 17th Street Canal and viewed the site where the 100-year-old Beth Israel Synagogue had been.

The delegation included Avi Lewinson, executive director of JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood, who serves on the boards of JCC on the Palisades and JCCA, and her husband, Dr. Arnold P. Gold. Julie Eisen of Saddle River and Dana Egert of Ramsey, also members of the JCCA board, attended on behalf of the board of Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township.

"It was mind-boggling how little has been done 18 months later," said Lewinson. He observed that, contrary to the implications of media reports that the trauma was restricted to poor and minority communities, "everybody, regardless of socio-economic class, was affected and are equally psychologically stressed." Moreover, Lewinson was startled to see acres of public parkland destroyed along with homes.

Later, donning hard hats, masks and other protective gear, they enthusiastically joined in gutting a YWCA that had housed a shelter for battered women, daycare facilities, and staff offices. The only full-service YWCA in the area, it had been flooded by four feet of water.

"Our contribution was unbelievably appreciated," said Lewinson. "There was a real desire to see what we could accomplish in a relatively short time, just a day. When we arrived, we were looking at a huge heap of garbage, wiring, computers, carpeting; everything had to be gutted, from the wiring to the insulation."

Lewinson said they were told of the community’s dire need to have the facility restored, but lamented that the funds for rebuilding are sorely lacking. Nonetheless, it was important, he contended, for the demolition to begin, with the help of volunteers. "We were pleased to do our share," he said.

One reason that money for reconstruction is so tight, explained Bockman, is that with so many residents and businesses forced to relocate, the city’s tax base has shrunk significantly. The general population has dropped from its pre-Katrina level of nearly half a million to about half that.

JCCA arranged the service project through another non-profit, "Nechama, Jewish Response to Disaster," that has been active since the hurricane hit doing time-consuming, expensive demolition to prepare buildings for reconstruction. The Minneapolis-based group brought ’00 volunteers during the winter holiday season, after bringing hundreds down last summer.

Other groups that have pitched in recent months include the Union of Reform Judaism’s Adult Mitzvah Corps, which in December brought a group of 35, ranging in age from late teens to people in their 50s, and Hillel, the national organization for Jewish campus life, which organized a trip for nearly ‘,000 college students.

All who’ve been there agree that so much remains to be done and that the message must be conveyed to their communities back home.

Bockman is using a Purim jam session at his synagogue as a fund-raising opportunity. He’ll play trumpet and Nikki Armstrong, who ran a regular jam session at the restaurant Mexicali Blues in Teaneck, will emcee what Bockman intends to be a lively tribute to New Orleans jazz musicians. The event will take place on Saturday, March 3. at 8:30 p.m.

Lewinson is exploring how the JCC on the Palisades can duplicate a community-wide drive it held just after the storm. Back then, the membership adopted Natchez, Miss., a Gulf Coast town that bordered New Orleans. "Whatever they told us they needed, we collected," Lewinson recalled. "We sent down boxes and boxes." Now, Lewinson plans to approach the leadership at the New Orleans JCC to see "if there are specific needs where we can be helpful. We’re looking for ways to touch people’s lives, one-on-one," he said.

Gail Chalew of JTA contributed to this report.

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