On the seventh anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in history, Hurricane Issac advanced upon Southeast Louisiana in a slow, plodding manner, stalling and making landfall twice, eventually dumping record amounts of rain that caused widespread flooding in several neighborhoods. Rain continued throughout the day on Thursday, even though the center of the massive storm was located over 150 miles away.
But unlike seven years ago, when winds were above 130 miles per hour and levees were breached due to faulty construction, Issac did little more than make residents restless and uncomfortable. The good news was the $14.5 billion federal levee system designed to protect the city of New Orleans from a similar storm like Katrina performed extremely well under Issac’s minimal hurricane strength and maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. Only those structures outside the levee protection system or those dependent upon local or state levee structures seemed to have problems.
By and large most Jewish community organizations and religious institutions seem to have weathered the storm with no substantial damages to report. Some are dealing with a loss of electric power from downed lines and reduced water pressure due to overtaxed systems.
In Metairie strong winds associated with Hurricane Issac toppled tree limbs at Shir Chadash Conservative Synagogue and blew down the fencing that surrounded its playground. Some slight damage to the building in the form of small leaks were found, but the structure was largely unscathed and electric service was either quickly restored or never lost. Complicating the recovery from the storm is the fact that a Bar Mitzvah was planned for Saturday morning. Executive director Sandy Lassen reported that the synagogue will hold the event, but will change the menu from a meat meal to a dairy meal, providing attendees with food they already have on hand. “Luckily he has a parsha that’s repeated in October,” she said so the family will hold a bigger event then.
Prior to the storm’s arrival, the nearby New Orleans Jewish Day School (NOJDS) stored much of their food in the Shir Chadash freezers. However, it appears the Goldring-Woldenberg Building that houses them, the Metairie JCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans did not suffer any loss of power either.
Executive director Michael Weil announced in an email that Federation would remain closed through Wednesday and that a decision would be made by the other directors as to whether the NOJDS and the JCC would be opened Friday.
Kosher Cajun Grocery and New York Delicatessen owner Joel Brown acknowledged his business was without power. Brown admitted that unless power is restored soon, he’ll be forced to dispose of all perishables including large amounts of kosher meat. His business is the only exclusively kosher grocery in the state. Nearby Casablanca Restaurant, the only other kosher dining facility in the area, was also suffering from a loss of power and did not answer its phone either.
Meanwhile, Congregation Gates of Prayer, the only Reform synagogue in Metairie, also detected little in the way of damage from Issac beside some wind driven rainwater. In an email Rabbi Robert Loewy invited those members of the congregation without power to enjoy the air conditioning, television and Internet access of the synagogue’s physical plant until they closed their doors at 6:00 p.m. Thursday. The building was be closed in order to observe a combined Jefferson and Orleans Parishes enforced curfew from dusk to dawn. It was announced that Gates of Prayer would host its final Union for Reform Judaism community worship service at an earlier time of 6:00 in order that members of the community would not chance breaking the curfew. Authorities lifted the dusk to dawn curfew after Thursday. The Shabbat evening service is scheduled to be very casual with “blue jeans welcome,” while Saturday morning worship services will be held at 10:30 a.m.
Their new next door neighbor, Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Seven years ago it lost seven Torah scrolls and thousands of prayer books and ritual prayer items due to the flooding associated with the failure of the federal levee system at its Canal Boulevard location. For a while the synagogue was homeless until it was welcomed temporarily into Gates of Prayer by Rabbi Robert Loewy. Housed at Gates of Prayer for the past five-plus years in a small chapel and tiny office they rented, the congregation built a new structure over the course of the last year on land purchased from Gates of Prayer. Beth Israel dedicated their new building this past weekend to much hoopla with numerous local officials speaking. Special guests included Rabbi Avi Weiss of Yeshivat Chevivah Torah and executive vice-president emeritus Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union. The five Torah scrolls donated to the synagogue were escorted under chuppahs (coverings) from Gates of Prayer to the new Beth Israel sanctuary as a traditional New Orleans brass band played. After the Torah scrolls were secured in a new Aron Hakodesh(holy Ark), a mezuzah was attached to the front door and a special blessing said. Following the donor dinner on Sunday evening, the synagogue went into storm preparations. Rabbi Uri Topolosky reported the shul had electric power, but that rain penetrated the children’s wing on its eastern side. He indicated Shabbat services are planned to go ahead as normal.
Rabbi Yossie Nemes of the Chabad Center of Metairie reported that electricity was on and that the structure had not suffered any damage. He had also moved up the time of his daily evening minyan to 6:15 so that attendees would be able to daven Mincha (afternoon) and Ma’ariv (evening) worship services before the implentation of the curfew at 8:00 p.m. Since the curfew has been lifted, he said they would return to a 7:00 p.m. start for evening services.
Along the St. Charles Avenue corridor uptown, several live oaks were felled due to a combination of super-soaked root structures and heavy wind resistance. Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai – the two major Reform temples located uptown – suffered from a loss of power. Temple Sinai president Cliff Kern reported that the older section of the Temple Sinai sturcture (specifically the sanctuary and a few adjacent rooms) did have power. But the newer portion of the building including the administrative offices was without electric service. Both Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue were not answering phone calls and did not expect to start back until after the Labor Day holiday on Tuesday. Likewise, the Uptown Chabad House, the Rohr Chabad Student Center at Tulane University and the Tulane Hillel Goldie and Morris Mintz Center for Jewish Life were all without power. The Hillel Kitchen there was also closed down until further notice. No word was forthcoming as to whether or not they will lose any of their food supplies.
Although daily morning minyans were still being held at the Chabad House, 1216 Broadway, at 7:00 a.m., Rabbi Mendel Rivkin confirmed they will relocate to a place with air conditioning should power not be restored by Thursday evening. The new meeting site has not yet been determined.
Across town Rabbi David Polsky, the spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Sfard, the small Orthodox congregation located on the border of the Garden District on Carondelet Street, cancelled the scheduled Shabbat services. “I rather doubt we could get a minyan together,” he had said. Polsky said the combination of lack of electric power for lights and air conditioning was the major factor, but so, too, was the knowledge that several congregants would not be available to constitute the minimum ten men required for prayer and a Torah service. “I rather doubt we could get a minyan together,” he had said.
An on site tour by the rabbi on Thursday could not determine if the structure had suffered any damage. The building, which is in need of regular maintenance, appeared to have weathered the storm well, but further inspection was required to see if water was intruding in any way on the building. Polsky, his wife Mindy Rothstein and young newborn Toby were planning to celebrate a Simchat Bat on Monday. In an email sent out to Anshe Sfard congregants on Friday, Polsky postponed that event as well.