JACKSON, Miss. — Almost a third of New Orleans police officers walked off the job last week in the face of violent looters, fetid floodwaters and infernal heat — but Brian Weiss stayed at his post.
Weiss, 43, a lieutenant with more than 22 years of service, survived day-to-day after Hurricane Katrina ripped through a levee in city’s Fifth District and flooded his station. He faced down gunmen and came upon the dead bodies of fellow police officers. He scrounged, alongside other stranded residents, for food and water in grocery stores. His only refuge, a Sheraton Hotel, reached 120 degrees without air conditioning.
As a result of the chaos, the lieutenant also missed the funeral of his grandmother, Lena Feingold, 95, one of the elderly residents who perished during the disorderly evacuation of New Orleans.
By Friday, September 2, four days after the hurricane hit, more than one dozen family members from around the region had converged three hours north of New Orleans in Jackson, Miss., to seek refuge at the home of Weiss’s sister, Tammy Rubinsky, and to bury the family matriarch. But their prayers were fixed on Brian.
“Every time I talk to him I don’t know if that’s going to be the last time,” said his wife Brooke, 30, who was staying at the Rubinsky home with their two children. With less than three years until he qualifies for a full pension, she added, her husband was unlikely to desert. “I already know that we lost the house, [but] I’m just holding on and holding on to the thought that he will be OK, and if he comes out, I don’t care about anything else.”
With many homes like the Rubinskys’ suddenly serving as shelters, Jackson — which survived the hurricane relatively unscathed, but suffered extended power outages and a severe gas shortage in the aftermath — has ballooned in recent weeks. Its population of nearly 200,000 is thought to have doubled. The city’s Jews, most of whom have deep roots in the South, welcomed family and friends from around the region, and, in the space of days, knit together a community of residents and evacuees that weathered a storm of emotions — relief, anger, sorrow, gratitude and uncertainty. So far, at least 80 of the Jews from New Orleans and other stricken areas who sought refuge in Jackson have turned to the city’s only synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, for assistance.
I’ve been “literally watching hundreds of people going through stages of grief,” said Jonathan Cohen, the director of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in nearby Utica, Miss., which sheltered roughly 250 people in the week after the hurricane.
For example, Cohen said, one man from New Orleans who sought refuge at the camp was initially determined to return to his home in the devastated city. But he was dissuaded by a day spent watching news footage of the city erupting in violence. The man’s wife and children — who attended the camp earlier this summer — had already gone on to Houston to take refugee.
“By the end of the day, he said, ‘I’m going to Houston to join my family,’” Cohen recalled. “What an amazing turn — in 24 hours to go from being excited to go back to ‘I’m never going to go back there again.’”
In Jackson, several members of Temple Beth Israel, the city’s 200-family Reform congregation, have volunteered with the Red Cross at the Mississippi Coliseum in the city’s downtown area. Like civic facilities in other cities, the Coliseum has been converted into a make shift shelter, with several thousand evacuees lying on a patchwork of inflatable mattresses that covers the floor.
On Saturday, September 3, the Coliseum made national news when two evacuees from New Orleans, who fled the city hours before their wedding with only their marriage license and wedding bands, went through with their ceremony.
For Jackson’s Jewish community, the first Shabbat after the hurricane also mingled profound loss with signs that life goes on.
Friday night at the Rubinsky household, Brooke Weiss called on government officials to help her husband, who she said was fighting to survive nearly a week after reporting for duty.
“Where is the president now, where are our senators, where is the federal government, where is the state government, why aren’t they helping us?” she asked, looking down at her pendant, a replica of her husband’s badge. “Brian had told me they are out there with AK-47s. This is straight out combat. This is not the job he signed up for and this is not what his training is in. He is completely and totally exhausted because he hasn’t been given any relief.”
Brian’s mother, Honorine Weiss, nodded in agreement. She already had spent days during the course of the week trying to locate her mother, Lena, but the phones lines were down in the nursing home. On Wednesday, she got a call from an emergency vehicle that was in Lafayette, La., en route to the hospital.
“They had taken my mother, trying to take her to the Houston Astrodome — the 95-year-old, frail, pitiful thing, and put her on some kind of bus,” Honorine Weiss said. “And,” she added, looking as if she still did not quite believe what had happened to her mother, “They called 911 in Lafayette because she looked like she was very sick, and she died.”
But amid such heartache came the bar mitzvah of Benjamin Johnson last weekend, and the Jackson Jewish community came together, with each of its constituent parts, old and new, well represented: long-time members like the Rubinskys came with their extended families, the Jews from Camp Jacobs made the drive into town, and several professionals from evacuated Gulf Coast congregations made the rounds during the Kiddush.
Earlier in the week, the power had gone off, but Rabbi Valerie Cohen insisted that the bar mitzvah go forward as planned, even if it meant sitting in the heat, even if the food had been destroyed.
Just in case, though, she placed a red flashlight next to the lectern, along with a candle. “ Shabbat is truly a time of joy and a time of peace,” she told the assembled congregation on Friday night. “Even in the midst of our sadness we are commanded to celebrate, and that’s exactly what we are going to do tonight.”
The lights flickered off in the middle of services, and a hush fell over the congregation. The rabbi passed the candle to Benjamin and nodded for him to keep reading, and he did.
A few days later, Brooke Weiss received the most welcome of visitors: Her husband was safe and in Jackson for a five-day leave.