Jews Dispersed by Gulf Hurricanes Find a JCC on the World Wide Web

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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The recent evacuation of New Orleans was not the first time that Jews have been scattered to the four winds — but with this Diaspora, there is a new solution for holding an exiled community together: the Internet.

Since being forced out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the city’s Jews have reconstituted their community in new hubs on the Web. One New Orleans synagogue has a bulletin board where members of the congregation check in with each other and the rabbi provides daily messages. At the reconfigured Web site of the city’s Jewish federation, there is contact information for every Jew from New Orleans who has been located — a list that has become the main source for Jews from the Big Easy who want to contact each other.

“You can feel very isolated these days,” said Gail Pesses, a clinical social worker, who checks in daily on the electronic bulletin board maintained by her synagogue, Gates of Prayer. “The Web has just been a godsend.”

When Pesses decided to move from her first place of refuge in Texas to Memphis, she checked the federation’s list and found that another congregant from Gates of Prayer was there. That congregant alerted Pesses to an upcoming event where Birkenstock sandals and shoes were being given away to evacuees.

The groundbreaking and unique role played by Web sites in the current disaster quickly became clear after the hurricane struck, when cell phones in New Orleans stopped working. At the Gates of Prayer synagogue, the computer servers were in the synagogue, which lost electricity, so the congregation’s e-mail accounts went down. The rabbi had the synagogue’s Webmaster create an electronic bulletin board for members of the congregation to use to write to each other. The result has not been a major technical breakthrough — it is a rather unsophisticated posting board — but it has been useful. The congregation has 450 members, and so far the bulletin board has been visited 2,700 times.

“When people are scattered they feel disconnected,” said Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer, who is staying in Houston. “Well, lo and behold, here comes an Internet page and they feel connected.”

Even as the water recedes, New Orleans residents keep moving and many of the old communication networks still have not been restored, leaving the Web sites with a central role in maintaining the community. Loewy’s office e-mail account is still down, and he has posted his changing contact information on the bulletin board.

The most intensive Web-based response has come from the federation, which opened up a new Web site the day after the hurricane with the help of the United Jewish Communities, the national coalition of local Jewish federations. Since the hurricane, close to 8,000 separate users have visited the site –– out of a community with 10,000 Jews.

The federation Web site has attempted to serve as a clearinghouse for all the services Jewish community members need. There are announcements from the Louisiana commissioner of insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency about filing insurance claims, as well as listings of meetings organized by the New Orleans federation in cities across the region, including Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Dallas.

Michael Wasserman, a New Orleans doctor, has used the federation site,, to find Jewish events in each of the three temporary homes he has had since the hurricane.

“It’s a virtual JCC,” said Wasserman, vice president of the federation. “It doesn’t function as well as a JCC, but it’s better than nothing.”

The most popular feature on the Web site has been the updated list of contact information for Jews from New Orleans. Like any JCC, virtual or not, the Web site only includes those who choose to affiliate and can easily access the facilities. In this case, 1,350 families have provided changing details of their whereabouts. It is estimated that two-thirds of the city’s Jews have yet to be tracked down by the federation.

Sherri Tarr, who is ostensibly still the director of the federation’s women’s campaign, has spent most of her time since the hurricane maintaining the list. Before she left Houston last week — during an evacuation triggered by the onslaught of Hurricane Rita — the last thing she did was update the list. “When I get back into the office tomorrow,” said Tarr on Monday, as she made her way back to Houston from Baton Rouge, “I will update and upload the database again.”

The list — a simple spreadsheet — gives a remarkable census of how far the community has been has scattered. It identifies 17 cities in nine states with at least 10 families among the 1,350 families that have contacted Tarr. According to the list, there are individual families now in London, Montreal, Mexico, LaCrosse, Wisc., and northern Mississippi. In the “notes” section of the spreadsheet, one family said it had decided to move to New York. Another family was listed as living at a campsite in Grand Coteao, La.

The most intense use of the federation Web site came immediately after Katrina, as community members feverishly tried to track each other down. Now community members are using the sites to help coordinate their moves back to the city.

Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans where more than a third of the city’s Jews lived, recently has been opened to residents. On the federation Web site, 16 families said they are already back in Metairie, which is just west of the city, and another 10 families said they are in the New Orleans area. The public schools in Metairie’s surrounding parish are set to open on October 3.

Gates of Prayer is in Metairie and is the first synagogue in the area to re-open its office. Two staff members are there, supervising construction workers who are tearing out the old walls and flooring — the staff has posted updated pictures documenting the progress. The synagogue administrator guesses that 10% of the synagogue’s members are back in Metairie. As they return, they are posting messages looking for housing.

But the bulletin board is not just used for practical needs. Each Friday the rabbi posts a Shabbat letter. After announcements about FEMA insurance and the removal of sheetrock in the most recent letter, Loewy wrote, “Here comes a little Torah,” and briefly discussed the weekly Torah portion.

Other rabbis from the area have set up blogs since the hurricane, including the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Tulane University. Another blog, maintained by the rabbi of the Baton Rouge synagogue where many Torah scrolls from New Orleans were being stored, conveyed the unhappy news that the sanctuary had suffered heavy damage during the rains brought on by Rita.

But not all of the news and notes being exchanged are so heavy.

“The Brotherhood fishing trip will be postponed,” one congregant wrote in a note posted on the Gates of Prayer Web site. “Hurricanes have wreaked havoc on our fishing trips over the years and this one was a doozie.”

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