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Getting a Fresh Start in a Soiled City

December 29, 2005 By:
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Trudging on with life's normalities: Scott Baron on the second-floor of his New Orleans home with his youngest child, Eli, who after having his life turned upside-down must now confront the chore of potty-training.
The carpet, or what was left of it, was hidden somewhere beneath the pine-cone sprinkled mud. Piles of prayerbooks and Talmud volumes, warped and corroded, lay on the ground. The arks were disconcertingly empty; 10 feet of water had filled the synagogue and decomposed the Torah scrolls beyond the possibility of restoration.

Dampness pervaded Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in New Orleans, and the lingering unpleasant smell hinted that months after the floodwaters had subsided, it still might not be a good idea to poke through debris in the 35-year-old building.

"I had a Bar Mitzvah here. I was married here," said Eddie Gothard, 45, past president of the synagogue, still in awe of the wreckage. "Imagine the lake emptying out and being blown by 100-mile-hour winds."

He's referring, of course, to the now famous Lake Pontchartrain. The synagogue sits just a few blocks south of the body of water in Lakeview, an upper-middle-class neighborhood hammered by tides after the 17th Street Canal levee gave way in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Four months after the winds and rain overwhelmed the New Orleans levee system - submerging more than 80 percent of the city and killing more than 1,000 people - the scope of the devastation remains beyond comprehension.

Block after endless block of Lakeview's streets - lined with what must have been impressive-looking homes - appear all but abandoned. Piles of trash and battered cars covered with soot and mold are practically petrified on once-verdurous lawns.

"It was an unprecedented event; the only thing I could compare it to is a city that was bombed," said Arlene Baron, executive director of the Jewish Community Center's campus in Uptown, a historic part of the city that sits on relatively higher ground, and was thus spared the worst pounding.

More and more, signs of an uncertain rebirth are sprouting up alongside the destruction, and the Jewish community is right in the thick of the struggle to reclaim one of the most unique of American cities.

On the Front Lines
Officials at the Jewish Federation of New Orleans estimate that more than 40 percent of the area's Jewish community - which numbered about 9,500 before Katrina - have returned from places like Houston, Baton Rouge, Memphis and Atlanta, with more expected to arrive in January when the schools reopen.

No one is quite sure how many people currently live in the city. Estimates range from 60,000 to 150,000 for an urban center whose pre-Katrina population was 412,000.

People are going back to Uptown and the much newer suburb of Metairie, just west of the Lakeview section of the city. These locales are more or less up and running, but very far from back to normal.

And while they may be coming back, many Jews are living in less than ideal circumstances: sleeping in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; crashing with relatives; or inhabiting the second floor of a home where the first floor was flooded, often without heat or a working kitchen.

Even for those whose homes suffered comparably little damage, nearly every aspect of life is still affected by the hurricane's aftermath.

"You don't go out nearly as much. Things close early. In some places, traffic lights don't work," explained Dr. Walter Levy, 56, who lives and works in Metairie. "It's not good. It's a hard life. It's not like living in Rwanda, but it's much harder than anybody is used to. I've never seen a situation like this, where everybody is a victim."

On the upside, all but two of the nine synagogues in the New Orleans area have reopened. Temple Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue in Metairie, even started Hebrew school in November.

But some have said that as much as a third of the pre-Katrina Jewish community may never return. The New Orleans Jewish Day School, which is on the second floor of the Federation building in Metairie, had hoped to reopen in January, but will remain closed until at least August due to a lack of students.

"All the synagogues have lost members," said Gothard at Beth Israel. "All have lost at least a year of membership dues."

The attorney, who believes his own synagogue's building may be functional again in three or four years, predicted an eventual recovery for New Orleans.

"The city will come back," he declared. "The Jewish community will come back. But from here, it's going to be a different city, at least on a smaller scale."

Several community members, though, said that Beth Israel in particular was struggling to stay open even before Katrina, and may never open its doors. It will certainly take a long time for Lakeview, the neighborhood it calls home, to bounce back.

Electricity has not returned to much of the area, and come nightfall, darkness descends upon its streets, bringing with it the feel of a ghost town.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. There is nobody here," said Dr. Michael Wasserman, 53, standing outside his Lakeview home - its first floor gutted, its second floor spared. His father's one-story home is a block away, stripped and uninhabited.

Initially fearing the hurricane would tear off his roof, Wasserman and his wife, Lynne, transferred many of their possessions - some irreplaceable, like photo albums and family Passover Haggadahs - downstairs. He didn't count on his bottom floor being filled with water.

His neighbor's home looks even worse: A large tree crashed through the roof. Wasserman, vice president and campaign chair at Federation, pointed out an irony of post-Katrina New Orleans: His neighbors had "hit the jackpot" because they could collect damages from homeowner's insurance on top of flood insurance.

Wasserman admitted that he's lucky; he and his wife were financially able, thanks in part to the flood insurance, to buy a townhouse in nearby Metairie, just on the other side of the 17th Street Canal.

Their Lakeview house is structurally sound, unlike most of the homes in New Orleans' poorer, largely black neighborhoods, such as the now infamous Lower 9th Ward, which was leveled by more than 20 feet of floodwater from the city's Industrial Canal.

Wasserman isn't sure he ever wants to live in Lakeview again.

"I don't want to be a pioneer," he said. "I need to know, is the grocery store going to reopen? Is the pharmacy going to reopen?"

The Country Doesn't Know!
Jewish professionals and community members said time and again that the rest of the country just doesn't get how bad things are in New Orleans. All levels of government - federal, state, local - they stressed, must provide adequate protection against future weather-related disasters.

Many residents scoff at those pundits and city planners outside of the city who have suggested that it may be impossible to secure the safety of all citizens, and that America might be better off letting New Orleans die.

"There is a fear of abandonment," acknowledged Rabbi Robert Lowey of the Reform Temple Gates of Prayer in Metairie. "When New Orleanians hear that maybe we need to let New Orleans die, they just can't believe it."

The hurdles facing Scott Baron, a 34-year-old father of three who lives on the outskirts of the Uptown area, seem symptomatic of the problem. He recently moved his family back from Houston to live on the second floor of their home.

Baron's section of the neighborhood - largely built in the 1930s - sits on low ground. It received several feet of water.

All the trash and mold has been removed from the home's first level, along with the sheetrock and floor, leaving an area not habitable for months to come. The family has no real kitchen and their heat doesn't work, which is a problem in December, when, despite the mild and even warm days, it still gets chilly at night. Fortunately, their upstairs is spacious, and they can spread out there.

Still, only three houses on the block are currently occupied. Baron's neighbor is living out of a trailer parked in front of his home while the man tries to repair it. Only one streetlight is working, which Baron said provided the only illumination for the neighborhood, and "Thank God for that."

Baron, who was confirmed at the nearby landmark Touro Synagogue, thought the city should be much farther along in its rebuilding efforts.

"They are doing everything in their power to make this one of the biggest man-made disasters of all time," he said, referring to all levels of government. "Is this America? Is this the greatest country in the world - or not?"

Back on Sept. 15, President George W. Bush addressed the nation from Jackson Square in the historic French Quarter and pledged to rebuild the city. Nearly everyone interviewed wondered what had become of that promise.

"You have to have a feeling of security, of safety, and we don't have that yet," said Wasserman. "We've made a lot of progress. It's getting cleaner, but there is no construction."

In the face of mounting criticism over how the administration has handled the rebuilding efforts, the president requested from Congress this month an additional $1.6 billion on top of a previous request of $1.5 billion to repair the levee system.

Under this plan, the levees would be back at pre-Katrina strength by the 2006 hurricane season.

This would mean, of course, that if the next major storm hit next fall, the levees could fail again.

Roselle Ungar, assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation, said Bush's announcement had sparked very cautious optimism.

"It's a start. Obviously, we don't think it's enough," she said, adding that what residents are hoping for is the implementation of a $32 billion plan touted by state and local officials that would strengthen the levees to withstand a hurricane of maximum intensity. That proposal would also restore some of the area's wetlands, which in the past had proved a vital defense against flooding.

Damages in the Millions
In Metairie, about a 20-minute drive northwest of downtown New Orleans, the Federation's three-year-old building shares a parking lot with Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation. Temple Gates of Prayer and Chabad Lubavitch of Metairie are each a few minutes drive from the campus on West Esplanade Avenue.

While the levees did not breech on the Metairie side of the 17th Street Canal - sparing it the catastrophe that befell Beth Israel and Lakeview - the Federation building, synagogues and many homes incurred up to a foot of water because the drainage canal running along West Esplanade Avenue overflowed.

"We're looking at damages in the millions," said Ungar, from her third-floor office in the mostly empty building.

Still, Ungar said that the JCC may revive its fitness center, which occupies the first floor and took the brunt of the damage, some time in January.

Nearby, at Temple Gates of Prayer, workers were busy patching up the sanctuary, which slopes downward and took in a lot of water. Lowey explained that the congregation incurred more than $1 million in damages. In addition, the congregation may only receive just half of the $400,000 it had expected to collect in dues; it may ultimately lose 10 percent to 20 percent of its membership.

Emily Grotta, spokeswoman for the Union for Reform Judaism, said that the movement had picked up the tabs for four months of operating costs for the area's four Reform congregations.

United Jewish Communities gave $1.5 million to sustain the Jewish Federation and its agencies from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. In addition, they allocated the same amount to the Federation to provide up to $700 in emergency assistance for Jewish community members returning to the New Orleans area.

At Shir Chadash, volunteers on a recent Sunday were sorting items for an upcoming Chanukah bazaar. The building's social hall looked like a warehouse - its floors stripped, its walls lined with rows of boxes containing things like prayerbooks and tallises. Many of the items were waiting to be thrown out.

"A lot of stuff was under water for so long, it was ruined," said Michael Kancher, the congregation's executive director, who also had a house in Lakeview that was destroyed. He's currently renting an apartment with his college roommate; his wife is still in Maryland, waiting to return.

The congregation had to purchase new pews, office furniture, carpets and computers, and it had to replace its flooring and sheetrock.

Lew Grafman, interim director for social action and public policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the movement is earmarking a "substantial" amount of its remaining hurricane-relief funds to help Shir Chadash and a Mississippi congregation meet the costs of rebuilding.

Will Samuels, ritual vice president at Shir Chadash, said the damages totaled about $300,000, and that "there is additional fundraising that's needed because the needs of the synagogue are extensive."

Closer to lunchtime, several congregants headed down the road to Kosher Cajun New York Deli Grocery, a popular eatery that reopened in late November.

"Every day, I'm seeing some of my old customers," said the establishment's owner, Joel Brown.

The restaurant, known for its kosher chicken-sausage gumbo, filled with two inches of water. When Brown returned, the establishment contained some 20,000 pounds of spoiled meat and other foodstuffs. With a brand-new floor, however, the deli looks almost as if nothing had ever happened. The major fallout, though, is that Brown can only afford to pay three employees, instead of the usual 10.

Because the Jewish day school remains closed, Brown's wife and three kids are staying in Memphis until at least the end of the school year, while he shares a home with his brother-in-law and father-in-law.

"That's the very sad part," he said. "I've been thinking and crying about that."

Just off the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, 63-year-old Harriet Kugler's home happens to have been the only one in her immediate family to escape the hurricane unscathed.

She and her recently retired 64-year-old husband, Richard, now have a few house guests: her mother, brother, son, daughter and son-in-law, two grandchildren, two dogs and a bowl of fish.

"I'm used to having my own room and my own desk," said Marleey Michaels, Kugler's 8-year-old granddaughter. She's presently sharing a room with her twin brother Max. Their father, Damion Michaels, placed an ironing board with draped sheets between the two beds to offer a small sense of privacy.

Michaels, a Web-designer for New Orleans restaurateur Emeril Lagasse, has set up an office inside his wife's childhood closet.

Carrie Michaels, the 34-year-old daughter of Harriet Kugler, said she's not sure how long her family will be crashing with her folks. They thought their own Metairie home would be ready by the end of December; clearly, that wasn't happening.

"If you don't laugh about it, what else can you do?" she said before adding, "but sometimes, you don't laugh about it."

Dr. Harris and Bonnie Blackman, both 56, can't help but chuckle every time they catch a glimpse of the words "Home Sweet Home" that their daughter, a New York artist, painted on the wall during her first visit to her parents' house since Katrina.

The first floor had to be completely gutted, the home is without heat, and there's no kitchen. (The Blackmans keep their food in a recently installed refrigerator downstairs.)

The couple sleep upstairs, a fact that Bonnie Blackman said was dangerous. She said that apart from navigating their clutter of stuff, the amount of dust and particles floating around the house makes it unsafe.

"I'm hoping we'll have a [FEMA] trailer by the time the sheetrock is done," she said, referring to the federal program that has provided some trailers to Katrina's victims, but has a very long waiting list. "The world needs to know that we still need a lot of help."

'They Don't Return My Calls'
Nothing is certain in post-hurricane New Orleans, where thousands of homes are covered in temporary blue tarps, and where simple tasks like setting up phone service or ordering new kitchen cabinets have become Kafkaesque ordeals.

"I know three roofers personally, and none of them will return my calls," said Arlene Baron, adding that finding any type of contractor was becoming more difficult as residents returned to the area.

Back on Uptown's St. Charles Avenue, a historic road lined by 100-year-old and older Southern-style mansions, the tracks that carried the city's famous streetcars were quiet. Residents said that before Katrina, the 300-year-old live oak trees created a canopy that blocked sunlight from hitting the pavement.

Many of the trees were still standing, but the canopy was gone.

At the Reform Touro Synagogue, a few blocks down the thoroughfare - which connects the French Quarter all the way to Tulane University - the rabbi, cantor and executive director of what is considered the oldest existing congregation outside of the original 13 colonies gathered to celebrate an ordinarily prosaic event, the publication of the congregation's newsletter. The occasion marked the first newsletter release since tragedy struck.

Rabbi Andrew Busch - who until recently served as the religious leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, a suburb of Philadelphia - said that the synagogue was fortunate, and incurred "only" about $150,000 in uninsured damages. He said that between 50 and 75 people have been showing up weekly for services, and that at least 120 of the 200 religious-school students planned to start up again in January.

Busch, 40, started his job in June; Katrina was the first hurricane he ever experienced. Before it hit, he evacuated to the Reform movement's camp in Missouri with his wife and three children. Busch's house survived, but for the moment, his wife and kids are still in Houston, where the children attend day school.

Cantor Seth Warner wasn't so lucky.

Warner, the father of a 7-month-old daughter, was forced to sell his home of less than a year for a loss after it had been badly damaged by the hurricane. He and his wife just moved into an apartment.

"We've compartmentalized things so we don't have to deal with this all at once," he said. "Having Touro Synagogue to pour my energy into really helps."

For both clergymen, the experience has been quite an ordeal.

"We don't understand why this happened. But I know that God is not in the story," said Busch. "God is in the response of the people after the storm."

He said that in times like these, the synagogue and the Jewish community become more important than ever. Religiously oriented opportunities, he pointed out, have started up again in earnest.

A week before, more than 100 people turned out at Uptown's Temple Sinai - a grand structure built in the 1920s - for one of the first communal events held since the hurricane. The program was called "Out of the Whirlwind: Jewish Possibilities for Acceptance, Hope and Renewal."

Rabbis Irwin Kula and Tsvi Blanchard from the New York-based CLAL: National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership utilized biblical texts, such as Ruth and Ecclesiastes, to start a discussion about people's experiences. Jewish families and individuals talked about why they came back to New Orleans, about the joy they had felt at reuniting with friends and relatives, and the pain and uncertainty of living in the reality created by the natural disaster and its aftermath.

Kula contrasted what is happening in New Orleans with the archetypal calamity in Jewish history - the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

"Eicha is not what I've heard," Kula told the crowd, referring to the biblical book of Lamentations, which begins, "lonely sits the city once great with people."

"This is not fundamentally a story about victims, although there are blocks and blocks of devastation," said the rabbi. "It's a story about thousands of people coming back."

But while residents seem utterly determined to rebuild their lives, they are more than a little skeptical about expressing outright optimism.

Julie Grant-Meyer, 55, lives in Uptown with her husband - her children are grown or away at school - and has been back in her comfortable home since early October. Despite the fact that she's suffered far fewer hardships than many other community members, she feels a great sadness over what has happened to her adopted city, and just a bit of guilt that her house was more or less spared.

Said the woman, whose front porch sports an "I love NOLA" T-shirt draped over a menorah: "We are a community of people living on the edge. Please don't think we're all better. We need help.

"[For these people] to have the sheer bravery to come back and start all over again is heart-wrenching - and enormous."

This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Federation Endowments Corporation.

 

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