Storm Victims Go Home for the Holiday

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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NEW ORLEANS — Expectations for the Kol Nidre turnout at New Orleans’s oldest Reform synagogue were so low that synagogue leaders originally planned to hold services in the building’s small chapel. But five minutes after prayers were scheduled to begin, as 300 people overflowed to folding chairs in the hall, it was clear they had underestimated. The worshippers applauded triumphantly when the cantor announced that the crowd was moving to the main sanctuary.

Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina had emptied the city, overcrowding was a welcome problem. For the moment, it did not matter that Temple Sinai’s congregation of 825 families had only a fraction of its members in attendance. Still reeling from their losses, the Jews of New Orleans welcomed the small victory.

While Yom Kippur typically invites worshippers to step back from daily routines and engage in a profound spiritual accounting, the holiday symbolized a return to everyday life for victims of Hurricane Katrina. After weeks of being scattered and separated, many had returned home for the first time to assess the damage and grapple with an uncertain future. For them, the Day of Atonement had become a painful homecoming, one imbued with hope layered over grief.

“This was not ‘Look at your sins,’” said Robert Loewy, rabbi of Congregation Gates of Prayer in suburban Metairie, La. “This was ‘Look at your life and give thanks for where we’re at, and move forward from there.’” During his Yom Kippur day sermon, Loewy discussed the anatomy of hope and urged worshippers to begin adjusting to the “new normal.”

Many community members, however, were still in shock and struggling to accept all they were missing. Congregants greeted each other repeatedly with the same few questions: How is your house? Where have you been? What are your plans? In some places, electrical power had returned only days before and phone service still was yet to come. One couple, set to take up residence in a trailer parked next to their flooded home, toted an album filled with photographs of wrecked furniture and moldy walls. A doctor, concerned about his reduced patient load, weighed the possibility of relocating his practice to Florida. At a reflection session led by Loewy on Yom Kippur day, murmurs of agreement greeted one congregant when she spoke of missing the past month entirely.

“It seemed like time was at a standstill,” said Dianne Green, 59, detailing an odyssey that had included stays with her son in Atlanta and with her elderly mother in Las Vegas and now a return to New Orleans and unemployment. “September just disappeared. From August 29, October 1 is all I know.”

For some, the sense of displacement was even more acute. Miriam Pailet Katz, 91, lost her home of 28 years in New Orleans’s Lakeview neighborhood. A few days after Yom Kippur, she sat stoically at a restaurant in Baton Rouge as her daughter discussed lost keepsakes and buying a new wardrobe.

But Katz cried softly at the mention of her life-long friends, women she drove to card games, who are now living with their children in cities across the South.

“Everything ended,” Katz said. “It will never be the same.”

Amid such widespread grief, the High Holy Days took on a heightened significance — a fact made apparent by the indignant reactions to incomplete service schedules at several synagogues. At the conclusion of Temple Sinai’s Kol Nidre service, an inconsolable congregant criticized Executive Vice President Ann Kimball over a plan to hold Yom Kippur day services at another venue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge. Kimball tried to explain that the plan had been set weeks earlier, before electrical power returned to the building.

Similarly, administrators at the Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation were caught off guard by the response to their initial plan to hold Rosh Hashanah services only in Houston, without providing for those who already had returned to Metairie.

“I have not seen such a response of anger,” said Michael Kancher, the synagogue’s executive director. “We were actually shocked that these people felt they were abandoned.”

To be sure, if the displacement made some quicker to anger than usual, it also pushed others to reach out in new ways. Immediately after Yom Kippur, Walter Michaelis, 63, a University of New Orleans math professor who now lives with a friend in Baton Rouge, attended both Friday and Saturday services there at Reform Congregation Beth Shalom. Despite describing himself as a “nonbeliever,” Michaelis attended the synagogue’s High Holy Day services, and found them more uplifting than he expected.

“I actually found it congenial,” he said. “I might have to revise my thoughts.”

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