DIASPORA!: How Katrina made me into a better Jew

By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN

While Hurricane Katrina was an absolute nightmare for most New Orleanians, it was my own harrowing and real-life version of a Dickensian tale played out in two cities. It was the best of times in Cleveland, and the worst of times in New Orleans.

My Home

What the flood looked like is captured in this photo of my home’s second floor taken five days after the water from the breached New London Canal reached Uptown. (Photo by Sidney Smith)

Unlike the vast majority, I hadn’t evacuated or had time to prepare my home and hearth for the onslaught of a monster storm bearing down on the Louisiana coastline. I was literally out of town on vacation, expecting to return on August 29, the infamous day the hurricane made landfall.

I was to be in Cleveland but for a short weekend visit and had left the Crescent City that Friday for what was intended to be a four-day stay. Within two days of landing, however, I found myself stranded in a foreign city with a cancelled flight back home. My suitcase had enough clothes to last for three days and little else.

I watched in horror over the Internet and on TV in the days that followed. News reports chronicled the plight of those who were stuck at the ravaged Superdome, had been confined without water at the Convention Center or who waited on rooftops awaiting rescue by helicopter. I was directed to sites showing satellite views of the bowl of the city filled with water including that of my own Uptown home. I was shocked to hear Mayor C. Ray Nagin announce on a WWL-TV Internet broadcast that the Twin Spans of the I-10 were gone.

Hurricane Katrina is still the costliest natural disaster in United States history and yet it was also a springboard for me as both a journalist and a Jew.

There was an angel looking out for me, as it turned out. Robin Sirkin, a volunteer working with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was heading up their relief efforts and she and I made contact almost immediately.

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The author with Robin Sirkin, who worked with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to help secure him housing, a car and a way to live outside of the flood-ravaged city. (Photo courtesy Alan Smason)

She arranged for me to receive much-needed funds and to apply for emergency food stamps. I had never before been on the receiving end of such charity. Although I recognized it was absolutely necessary, I nevertheless found it repugnant for me to accept. And yet I did.

I shopped for used clothes at a nearby thrift store run by the National Council of Jewish Women. I registered with the Red Cross as a displaced person. I resigned myself to deal with these unwelcomed changes, but I was determined to do something more than to relegate myself a hapless victim.

I set up my own Google Group to communicate directly with fellow New Orleanians, who had been forced to relocate to other cities like Houston, Atlanta, Memphis and Birmingham. And I feverishly wrote about what was happening.

I drafted a story about my plight and submitted it to Cynthia Dettelbach, the editor of the Cleveland Jewish News (CJN). To my surprise and delight, it was chosen as the newspaper’s cover story the following week.

The CJN’s CEO, Rob Certner, vividly remembers meeting me at a community rib burn-off event for the Solomon Schecter Jewish Day School that next Labor Day weekend. “My name is Alan Smason,” I began tentatively. “I’m from New Orleans and I need a job.”

Over the course of the next several weeks the Katrina story was still at the top of the headlines. My valuable work as a contributing reporter continued and I used my contacts to call rabbis and other community leaders stranded hundreds of miles away from home. I turned in several stories, all of which were published. Not long after that I was offered an opportunity to become a full-time member of the CJN staff as a staff reporter, web producer and IT tech. I threw myself into my work and I began to learn the Cleveland environs.

Robin Sirkin, who introduced me to her physician husband Jonathan and their wonderful family of four children, arranged for me to meet with officials at Bellfaire JCB, a sprawling campus located in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. They offered me a dormitory style room in one of their empty buildings outfitted with new bedspreads, towels, a number of kitchen appliances and cooking utensils. I could stay there as long as I needed, they assured me.

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Lakeview landmark: Sadie’s Boutique was one of a few Jewish-owned stores in Lakeview in 2005. (Photo by Alan Smason)

A scribbled note on an odd-shaped piece of cardboard had been placed on the bedspread and greeted me upon my arrival. Two friends of the Sirkins, David and Jill Gleicher, welcomed me to Cleveland and informed me that there were two sets of dishes provided, just in the event that I might want to keep kosher.

Even though I had attended an Orthodox synagogue all my life, had become a Bar Mitzvah, been a member of a confirmation class and had also taught religious school prior to college, I had never before kept kosher. The thought had never occurred to me to do so in New Orleans, a land that boasted treyfe at nearly every famous restaurant.

Yet, in an attempt to connect to an insular community outside my own and in my own resolve to do something as a symbolic gesture to thank those who had come to my rescue, I began to keep kosher that very day. I have not stopped keeping a kosher home since then.

Other magnificent gestures followed. A mother whose son had left for college offered me the unfettered use of his automobile in order to go back and forth to work and cover stories for the CJN. All she asked in return was for me to keep the maintenance up on the vehicle so that her son could retrieve it in working condition upon his return during Thanksgiving break.

I regularly sent out reports through the Google Group I had founded and kept track via email of recovery efforts for the city and plans for Federation, then ensconced in Houston, to move back to the Goldring-Woldenberg campus in Metairie.

I found myself attending Shabbat services on a regular basis at the Green Road Synagogue, one of several Orthodox Jewish houses of worship within walking distance of Bellfaire JCB. I shopped for fresh meat at both of the kosher butchers located within a block of each other and also regularly made purchases at the nearby kosher bakery and the chocolate emporium across the street from one another.

My work kept me busy during the day, conducting interviews and preparing obituaries and other articles on community members’ lifecycle events.

Watermarks on the former Congregation Beth Israel, devastated by flood waters and the water line levels clearly showing. The force of the flood was so great it broke out the glass windows. (Photo by Alan Smason)

When I was finally able to come home seven weeks later, I traveled through roadblocks manned by groups of Louisiana state troopers, New Orleans Police Department officers and National Guardsmen. There were no traffic lights, just a plethora of stop signs at major intersections, which required patience and care to traverse.

I witnessed firsthand what damage the mixture of water and toxic waste had done to my former abode. The downstairs quarters were full of mold and mildew and the interior walls required gutting and remediation. My extensive book and record collections were both ruined. My expensive sound and home entertainment system was reduced to rubble. Even my wedding album and priceless photographs of my son and deceased wife were destroyed. I learned an invaluable lesson – that one can never truly own possessions, that they are all destined to be passed on or destroyed.

There was a stillness in the air and a lingering odor of death that alarmed visitors, but to which residents eventually grew accustomed and called “the Katrina smell.” Much of the vegetation that covered lawns and neutral grounds was a peculiar shade of brown and many species of bushes and trees were dead or dying. Eerily, the birds had all but disappeared from the trees. Their plaintive songs would not return in the mornings for months to come.

I reclaimed my vehicle that had been parked at the airport since August. There was no charge, but a rear window had been punched out by pieces of a falling roof that had smashed other cars. Again, I was lucky. The rains from Hurricane Katrina and Rita had inundated the interior carpet, but my car dealership was able to rip out and replace the carpeting with barely any persistent smell.

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Sign in Kosher Cajun Restaurant. (Photo by Alan Smason)

I returned to Cleveland about 48 hours later and went back to work, planning my next return trip at Thanksgiving, about a month later. That second trip down to the city was also interesting, because so little had changed. The front lawns and sidewalks were still strewn with refrigerators that were being scrapped. Many were sealed with duct tape and most bore legends like “Do not open – Tom Benson inside!” Those were references, of course to the odious suggestion that the owner of the New Orleans Saints was threatening to move his team to San Antonio. If nothing else, the scrappy and redoubtable football fans were showing their mettle for their team and their stubborn and blind allegiance that an NFL championship might not elude them much longer.

A tour of my old synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, yielded photographs that were later published in the CJN. One of the most powerful was that of a mold encrusted Yemenite shofar I had used to lead the two previous Ten Commandments Hikes for the local Boy Scouts council. (See the CCJN story “A Tale of Two Shofars.”)

I drove my vehicle back from New Orleans, a city of a half million souls pre-Katrina that now claimed a total population of 80,000. My new home in Greater Cleveland boasted a Jewish population of that exact same number.

By my estimation, I had seen significant snowfalls perhaps five times previously. I had never lived in a locale where snow didn’t melt away in a few hours. That changed forever when I lived in Cleveland. As the snowfall increased, so did my religious observance. I learned to wear boots and the importance of layering clothes.

As the blustery winds increased and the clouds obscured the sun, I received some unsettling news. The Bellfaire JCB administration called to inform me I was no longer being allowed to stay in the dormitory due to a change in heart and their plans to construct a new building on the campus. I was mortified.

Again my angel provided. A former resident of Cleveland whose mother had been placed in a nearby Jewish assisted living facility wanted someone to rent her home, a four-bedroom home in University Heights, a few blocks away from the Sirkins and the Gleichers. The home was right out of the 1950s with wood paneling and wooden floors its most prominent features. I called it the “Leave It to Beaver” house. Best of all, it contained a connected garage.

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The Sirkin family five years ago in 2010 before they made aliyah to Jersualem. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The neighborhood was 90% Jewish and ironically was situated behind John Carroll University, a well known Catholic University. Virtually no one in the neighborhood drove on Shabbat. All families walked to and from their shuls within a massive eruv (enclosure) maintained every week by a community committee composed of volunteers. I began attending Friday night and Shabbat morning services on a regular basis, except for those weeks when I flew down to New Orleans to chart progress on repairs to my home.

When I moved into the home, I shared space initially with another Jewish victim from New Orleans. He was so shocked by the storm and the circumstances that had blown him northward that he elected to permanently move to Cleveland. He left about three weeks later. Meanwhile, I was determined to bring the home was up to kosher standards. A young rabbi and mashgiach (kosher supervisor) who lived nearby, inspected the premises and gave me his approval.

While progress toward recovery inched along at a snail’s pace in New Orleans, activities in Cleveland continued at full speed. Football season in Cleveland concluded as Mardi Gras activities began to take shape in New Orleans. My work as a narrator and manuscript writer for several Mardi Gras balls and announcer at Gallier Hall for parades required several trips home to the city, whereupon I would hang up my tails or tuxedo and board a late afternoon plane on Sunday in order to be at work on Monday at the CJN offices in Beachwood.

But for those weekends that Mardi Gras did not take me away, I found myself transported into Shabbat worship, walking to synagogue and enjoying Friday nights and Saturday afternoons at the Gleichers, the Sirkins or other neighbors. It was the first time I had experienced what a shtetl life might be like.

Shofar destroyed by flood waters following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The Passover seder I spent at the Sirkins with their children at the table was the most elaborate, the most fun and the longest I had ever attended. I walked back to my home at 1:30 a.m. Somehow, though, it all seemed so perfect.

As months of work continued, the skies predictably allowed more sunshine to pass through and the snow eventually melted away. New Orleans was still going through the painful process of recovery, but now also dealing with a tightly contested mayoral race between the incumbent and the man who would be elected four years later.

But despite the rancor between political factions, I always knew I would be returning to the city of my birth and the place wherein my heart resides.

When an opportunity to return as a writer and editor availed itself, I leapt at it and my work as a Jewish journalist has continued to this day. I still keep a kosher home and my work with the Crescent City Jewish News that began in 2010 has blossomed from a website portal into annual print editions of SOURCE and The Best of the Crescent City Jewish News. My connection to the American Jewish Press Association has increased substantially as an executive board member and my association with the Press Club of New Orleans has made us an award-winning publication for two years in a row.

As a postscript, I traveled by invitation of the State of Israel in 2014 for the first time as part of the first-ever Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem. For my first night there, I stayed at the new home of Robin and Jonathan Sirkin, who had made aliyah four years previously. Friday night I spent Shabbat dinner with the Gleichers in their home two blocks away. They had also made aliyah with their son Roni in 2009, a year before the Sirkins. Unfortunately, because both families are observant and out of respect for Shabbat, I have no photographs to record my stay there. Our friendship was still firm, anchored in the shared practice of our faith.

Nonetheless, Saturday afternoon after services had concluded, I walked back to the Sirkins to enjoy a festive meal that concluded with fresh slices of juicy avatiah (watermelon) and I marveled at how a storm in 2005 had made me into both a victim and a better Jew.

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