I want to share with you the deeply moving and informative experience I had last weekend in Baton Rouge.
Like most national denominations and faith organizations, the Union for Reform Judaism immediately set up a relief fund for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. I traveled as an emissary of the Union to deliver checks to an array of the more effective local groups on the front lines; some of the funds also have gone to national relief groups. In Baton Rouge, we gave ours to a superb program run by an alliance of Black churches, to the largest community foundation, to the Jewish Federation, and to both the Reform synagogues, which have done unbelievable work there.
From Baton Rouge, I had the honor of going with Rabbis Ed Cohn, Stan Zamec, Martha Bergadine, and some of New Orleans Federation leadership on a mission, under police escort, into New Orleans. We went to pull the torahs and other valuables from Touro Synagogue, Temple Sinai, Shir Chadash (a Conservative congregation), and the New Orleans Jewish Day School, and to pick up other things from the Tulane Hillel Foundation and the Federation building. It was an incredibly moving experience. Some of these torahs have tremendous history, given the history of these congregations, and several of the torahs were Holocaust scrolls. It was an extraordinary feeling to carry the scrolls to safety.
New Orleans is mind-boggling in terms of the damage: so extensive in the areas we traveled, which were the better areas, that I cannot imagine how bad it is elsewhere. Some of the horror stories I heard from the community and from reporter friends were as bad as the worst that has come out yet. It is difficult for me to see how this city is going to be rebuilt and in what form. It will require a level of coordination, cooperation, and vision that have been so sorely lacking. The government allocation of non-bid contracts for temporary housing and the lifting of the requirement for federal contactors to pay prevailing wages could not be a worse start.
As for the synagogues, while Touro and Sinai have relatively little damage, Gates of Prayer (in Metairie) has more water damage, and the Northshore Jewish Congregation in Mandeville, which we did not visit, has extensive damage.
Although perhaps the most intense part of my trip, the trip to New Orleans was not the only emotional moment. I spoke at Friday night Shabbat services, which were attended by more than 300 people, including about 120 from New Orleans. A few Christians joined us, including the Mayor of Baton Rouge and the head of the NAACP command center for hurricane relief. The community has given shelter to large numbers of Jews and a number of non-Jews. They have arranged numerous “angel flights” to transport people all over the country and on their own have found a number of long-term places for people to stay across the country as well.
My colleague, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, simultaneously traveled to Jackson, MS. The populations of Baton Rouge and Jackson doubled in the first week, and many will stay. The influx has overwhelmed the structures of the community. Only a minority of those who have been displaced are being taken care of by government programs, so the private sector – most particularly the synagogues and churches – are filling that void.
Both the New Orleans and the Baton Rouge communities are deeply proud of their response, deservedly so. I heard many stories that I'd not heard before about search and rescue missions into New Orleans: people from Baton Rouge drove as far as they could with boats in tow; then, when they could no longer drive, they took their boats to rescue people.
Everyone was very appreciative of our support and our presence. I am so proud to be part of an organization that resembles a great family, reaching out to aid and comfort one another. All of our colleagues have been working incredibly hard. Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action, and Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, Director of Regions, are the overall coordinators. Stefani Rosen, the RAC’s meeting coordinator, is in Utica, MS, at the Union’s Jacobs Camp, where she is coordinating the logistics of distributing the thousands of pounds of relief materials being sent by our congregations, our Jacob’s Ladder Project; other RAC staffers, including all of our Legislative Assistants, will be working at the camp in the weeks ahead.
I urge you to keep up with our relief efforts via our website, www.rac.org.