Coming back from the brink of disaster, Congregation Beth Israel took its first tentative steps as Metairie’s newest Orthodox Jewish presence holding the very first minyan in its own synagogue at 4004 West Esplanade Avenue on June 29.
As Shabbat continued with Saturday morning worship services the next day, Congregation members filled every available seat in the new sanctuary. There are several interior areas where finishing touches still remain to be completed, but for the most part, the congregation has moved into its new digs. The history of the congregation that once was the largest Orthodox congregation in the South is well known. Congregation Beth Israel was founded in 1904 from various smaller Ashkenazic prayer groups in what was then the largely Jewish section around the Dryades Street shopping corridor.
The incorporated congregation eventually erected a magnificent house of worship on the site of Mayor Joseph Shakespeare’s former home designed by noted architect Emil Weil. After 65 years in the Central City area a major rebuilding campaign was initiated and another site in the Lakeview area secured.
When Beth Israel officially moved into its modern new edifice in 1970, it sat on a plot that comprised nearly an entire city block. It was there the synagogue operated unhampered for 35 years until suffering catastrophic damage in the wake of the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.
All of the synagogue’s seven sefer Torah scrolls, siddurim and machzorim (prayerbooks), tallisim (prayer shawls) and other ritual items were destroyed and had to be buried according to halacha (Jewish law). Members were dispersed to distant areas as far flung as Houston, Dallas, Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland and New York. The congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yisroel (Stuart) Schiff, resigned his post and eventually relocated to a new position in the New York area with Aish HaTorah.
In an unusual arrangement, Congregation Gates of Prayer, the Reform Jewish congregation led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, offered the dispersed members of Beth Israel a temporary meeting place to hold High Holiday services in the Bart Room located in the rear of their building closest to West Esplanade. While still trying to map out and determine its collective future, the splintered Orthodox congregation was allowed by Gates of Prayer to continue meeting in the Bart Room. An administrative office was set up and kitchen space was allocated for Beth Israel to use under terms of a rental agreement. Meanwhile, dynamic Rabbi Uri Topolosky was hired in 2007 to lead Beth Israel during this period of recovery. Both rabbis became fast friends and even enjoyed studying with one another. This extraordinary partnership and cooperative spirit cemented an implied contract between the Reform and Orthodox congregations. The two congregations planned and held several joint programs and Beth Israel put its destroyed former site in Lakeview up for sale. After much negotiations and deliberations, both congregations voted and agreed to the sale of an adjacent parcel of land owned by Gates of Prayer on which Beth Israel intended to build its new sanctuary.
During the recovery period, a campaign to assure first the return of Beth Israel and later to finance the structure was begun by the congregation with major donations coming from the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Former Beth Israel presidents Jackie Gothard and Myron Goldberg, who kept the congregation together during the crucial years immediately following the wake of the storm, were given credit for their efforts as well as the members of their respective boards. For the first time in its existence, the congregation hired a synagogue administrator, Rabbi David Posternock. Posternock’s expertise in accounting and administration freed Topolosky from the daily chores of running a synagogue and permitted him to concentrate his efforts more effectively as the congregation’s spiritual leader and the public face of Beth Israel both locally and nationally.
Meanwhile, Beth Israel’s selection of noted fundraiser and non-profit advisor Roselle Middleberg Ungar, the former acting Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans executive director following the storm, was the final significant person needed to plan and implement what turned out to be a $3 million capital campaign to finance the new structure and to maintain an endowment that would generate significant monies needed for annual funding. A new dues structure was proposed and accepted by the congregation. Insurance payouts for the initial damage to the structure as well as for later damage due to flooding caused by vandals and burglars were received by Beth Israel. Donations from small and large donors across the nation contributed to the rebuilding fund, encouraged to do so by the OU and the congregation’s own revamped website. With help from vice-president Richard Katz, the former Beth Israel synagogue was designated a community center and received Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to aid in its rebuilding. After several years on the market place and several failed efforts, a final sale for the former Beth Israel was realized after work by several board officers including Alan Katz, Edward Gothard and Alex Barkoff. Gothard, a previous president of Beth Israel and the son of the congregation’s first woman president, was elected to his second term of office last year. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held April 18, 2010 and congregation members in a number of different committees met with architects and contractors over the course of the past two years, charged with deciding what materials would be used in the construction and how the building would be laid out.
Construction by Goliath Construction had been ongoing for most of the last year after months of planning and meetings by Parish officials. Practically all of the outside features have now been completed. Because the kitchen area remains to be finished and inspected by Parish officials before first usage, a Kiddush luncheon cannot be held at the synagogue for at least three more weeks. Apart from the kitchen, the other area where interior construction remains to be completed is for the Aron Hakodesh (holy ark) in the sanctuary. Gates of Prayer continues to loan Beth Israel a temporary wooden ark in which it is housing two of the five sefer Torah scrolls donated to them in the wake of the disaster. An Israeli artisan who specializes in the construction of arks has finished the building of the wooden ark in Israel and is having the structure shipped to the Metairie synagogue. He will oversee its final installation later this month, when the three remaining scrolls will be brought over to reside in the new ark.
According to synagogue administrator Rabbi David Posternock, all interior areas should be finished by the end of July, which is a month before official dedication ceremonies for Beth Israel’s new structure are scheduled to be held the weekend of August 24-26. Dedication weekend highlights will include a Friday night Kiddush dinner and a gala donor dinner on Sunday night at the new synagogue. Among the officials expected to attend that weekend are Topolosky’s mentor and friend Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and the OU’s Rabbi Steven Weinreb, who authors a weekly Torah portion commentary titled “The Person in the Parsha .”