After Katrina, Rabbi’s Future Uncertain

A leading Orthodox outreach group has issued an urgent fund-raising plea to support a displaced rabbi whom it claims “no longer has a synagogue or a home to return to.”

Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish outreach group that is the American arm of an Israeli yeshiva, sent out a mass October 7 e-mail appeal on behalf of Rabbi Stuart Schiff, religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans. The city’s only non-Chabad Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel was inundated with eight feet of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It will have to be rebuilt.

“This year, help bring sweetness to a rabbi and his family displaced by Hurricane Katrina,” read the heading of the e-mail, which asserted that the Schiffs are a “disaster-stricken family” and that, five weeks after the hurricane, they are still “without many basic necessities.” The family, which had rented a house near the synagogue, lost all its possessions in the flood and since has decamped to temporary quarters in Memphis, Tenn.

Both the rabbi and his synagogue have an uncertain future. In an interview with the Forward, Schiff said he plans to return to New Orleans after Yom Kippur while his wife, Chana, stays in Memphis with their five children. The Schiff kids attend a day school there, free of tuition. But Eddie Gothard, past president of the synagogue, seemed unsure that Schiff, who has been Beth Israel’s rabbi for three years, ultimately would choose to resettle in New Orleans — particularly with both day schools there closed indefinitely.

“I think he is reluctant to move back to town with his family without having a Jewish school to educate them in,” Gothard told the Forward. “We are not positive whether he is going to return or seek other employment.”

Whether or not Schiff would choose to return to New Orleans, another measure of uncertainly comes from the synagogue’s own precarious financial position. According to Gothard, few members have returned to New Orleans.

The synagogue sent out new dues statements just a couple of days before the hurricane hit. As a result, the congregation is expecting no dues income for 2005-2006 and is currently waiting to resolve its insurance claims before deciding when and how to rebuild. Two secretaries, the only other employees besides Schiff, already have been laid off.

Still, Gothard said, one thing is for certain: Beth Israel will go on. Leaders of the synagogue met recently to begin mapping out the synagogue’s future and agreed unanimously that closing is not an option. Lay-led Yom Kippur services were expected to be held in a nearby Comfort Inn, and the first post-holidays priority is to find a temporary location for the synagogue’s daily prayer services.

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After Katrina, Rabbi’s Future Uncertain

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