JTA / January 5, 2006
By Larry Luxner
NEW ORLEANS At the home of a Jewish family in suburban Metairie, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson of Columbus, Ohio, hammers nails into a new wooden fence with the help of Daniel Held, an Orthodox Jew from Toronto.
About 15 minutes away, inside the moldy, storm-ravaged Congregation Beth Israel in Lakeview, Suzanne Wolk of Washington, D.C., balances herself on a ladder in what was once the synagogue's library, emptying the shelves of waterlogged history books for eventual disposal in a landfill.
And at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center, Tamara Rushovich and Adi Rattner 17-year-old seniors at Baltimore's Pikesville High School chop vegetables for the JCC's kosher "meals on wheels" program for stranded seniors.
New Orleans has put out an SOS for help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Jews throughout North America lured by a sense of compassion, responsibility and even adventure are answering the call with enthusiasm.
"As soon as this happened, I wanted to do something," said schoolteacher Erica Berson of Alexandria, Va. "The Red Cross was saying just send money, but I felt so helpless."
So did Berson's friend, Renae Gross, also of Alexandria.
"I was waiting for an opportunity to be part of a group that was supporting this effort," said Gross, a consultant. "We look at these houses and think about the Jews who are scattered throughout the world. Whatever we can do for these people, we're here to help."
Berson and Gross were among 40 Jewish volunteers, just over half of them from the Baltimore-Washington area, who spent the last week of 2005 in New Orleans, flying out here at their own expense in order to make a difference.
Ashley Klapper, assistant director of the Baltimore-based Jewish Volunteer Connection, said her team worked on 20 houses that had been selected by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans for gutting, renovation or general repairs.
"I think every homeowner we worked with was able to come away feeling that they had moved forward," she said, "either because their house was being gutted in order to rebuild it, or for those whose houses will not be rebuilt, they were able to salvage some memories so they could rebuild their lives."
Klapper added: "I was so proud to be affiliated with this group of volunteers, because they were so flexible and so willing to do whatever work we asked them to do," she said. "Some people struggled with the challenge of knowing who to help and where we could be of most use, but I think that by the end, everyone understood that this is a tragedy that has affected absolutely everybody in New Orleans."
This particular group of volunteers stayed on the 8th floor of the Touro Infirmary, a Jewish hospital that's running at only 50% capacity and therefore had plenty of extra space.
But it wasn't the only game in town.
Fifty college-age volunteers sent by the Chabad movement are currently in New Orleans, working on storm-damaged houses; the men are staying at the JCC, while the women stay at the homes of local Jewish families.
Yet another group did post-Katrina cleanup work in the vicinity of New Iberia, about 150 miles west of New Orleans.
Amanda Bowen has been coordinating disaster relief efforts for the Jewish community of southwestern Louisiana. She said the 17-member group sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston helped clean out the moldy houses of non-Jews destroyed not by Katrina but by Hurricane Rita, which followed only three weeks later but didn't receive nearly as much attention in the press.
All told, at least 135 Jewish volunteers have done stints in Louisiana and Mississippi since Katrina, according to Adam Bronstone, community relations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
"We started a relief effort right after the storm, helping evacuate elderly Jews who didn't want to leave with the regular rescue teams. We also sent a group of boys to Mississippi," said Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, who grew up in New Orleans and overseees Chabad's activities here. "President Bush recently mentioned our efforts in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, telling them what we did and what the Reform temple in Baton Rouge did."
Like other volunteer leaders, Rivkin said the decision to help Jews was not based on financial status or ability to pay, but rather on matching needs with volunteers' skills.
"If somebody calls me and asks for help, I'm not going to ask to see their tax returns," he said. "We're four months after the storm, and those people who could have paid for help would have done so already."
That attitude is shared by the Union for Reform Judaism, which sent 19 volunteers to New Orleans. Members of this group, known as "Tzevet Mitzvot," have done this kind of work before in places ranging from Lexington, Ky., to Burlington, Vt. are generally older and have some skills in home repair, insulation, electrical work and plumbing.
Rabbi Joel Soffin of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, N.J., said his group finished three houses, putting up more than 100 sheets of drywall.
"There's very severe emotional trauma here," he said. "Our presence alone was a kind of spiritual, emotional healing. In that sense, everyone's poor. And it's difficult for people who are traumatized to organize anything."
One recipient of Tzevet Mitzvot's help was Laszlo Fuchs, a retired Tulane University mathematics professor living in Metairie, home to four out of 10 New Orleans Jews.
The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, who with his wife Shula is temporarily living in a rented one-bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge, said Katrina represents the third personal tragedy in his 81 years.
"This first time was when the Nazis sent me to a forced labor camp in Yugoslavia, in 1944. The second time was in 1956 during the Hungarian uprising, when Soviet tanks shot a cannon at our building in Budapest and destroyed our apartment. The third time is now."
Fuchs, interviewed in his trash-strewn front yard, said he couldn't believe how in one day, this group of Jews did more to help him and his wife than anyone has done in the four months since Katrina shattered their lives.
"I'm not really accustomed to asking for help, so it's very difficult to find words to express how we feel about complete strangers coming to help us," he said.
Added his wife, Shula. "It's beyond words. It's overwhelming. This is our people. It makes us believe."