JTA / June 5, 2006
By Larry Luxner
NATCHEZ, Miss. — It was an evening to remember: 117 Jewish high-school students from suburban Los Angeles — some of them wearing yarmulkes — singing, swaying and clapping their hands to old-time Gospel music at a black church in southern Mississippi.
Israeli music was on the concert program too, leading to a curious mix of melodies ranging from "Oseh Shalom" and "Kumbaya" to "Worship Him, Christ Our Lord."
The ecumenical event, which took place in early April, was led jointly by visiting Rabbi Robert Baruch and Pastor Birdon Mitchell Jr. of Zion Chapel Station African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Natchez, a historic river port founded in 1790.
"Very few white Jewish kids from Beverly Hills get to visit a Southern black church," said Kathy Stephens, president of the local United Way chapter, which helped organize the students' visit. "They could hardly shop at Wal-Mart without the townspeople stopping them and thanking them."
The "healing concert" was the town's way of thanking the young Jewish volunteers for helping in the wake of last year's Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed Natchez with stricken refugees from New Orleans.
It also highlighted continuing efforts by a variety of Jewish organizations to bring relief to local residents in the wake of the worst natural disaster in Mississippi history.
This summer, the URJ's Adult Mitzvah Corps as well as the National Federation of Temple Youth will send volunteers to the Magnolia State, as will Hillel and other groups.
Jonathan Cohen, director of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., said many of the Jewish volunteers likely to visit Mississippi this summer will be staying at Jacobs Camp, which immediately after Katrina helped distribute over three million pounds of relief supplies to needy families throughout the Gulf Coast.
"We've been getting a lot of calls from people in New Orleans over the last few weeks, asking if they could evacuate here," said Cohen. "Our message is that once our camp season ends the second week of August, we'll be open as an evacuation center if duty calls," he said. "We'll be ready to take in people if that's what we need to do."
Liat Yardeni-Funk, director of Yozma, the social action initaitive of Los Angeles-based Milken Community High School, said her school's week-long trip to Mississippi came out of a challenge issued by principal Roger Fuller to help Katrina victims.
"A task force was established, and we investigated whether a trip to the region was feasible. We had been meeting three times a week for the last four months to decide what we could do to bring relief, healing and hope to this region," said Yardeni-Funk. "We were looking for a sister city that was not necessarily destroyed, because we were concerned about health hazards, but rather a place that had absorbed evacuees."
When a humanitarian mission to Natchez was finally agreed upon, Yardeni-Funk said, "we expected 25 students would want to leave school and pay $730 each to come out here. But within 10 days, 100 signed up — half 10th-graders and half 11th-graders. The trip was filled to capacity. We had to book three different flights just to get here."
Although Natchez was spared the physical brunt of the killer hurricane, it suffered collateral damage in the form of economic disaster. As many as 32,000 refugees from New Orleans — many of them from the poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward — flooded into Natchez after the New Orleans Times-Picayune listed the town as an evacuation site without local officials' knowledge.
"People came here because they knew hotel rooms in Baton Rouge would be full," said Stephens, recalling the disaster. "The convention center downtown was turned into a processing center for the Red Cross to give vouchers. In one week alone, they processed 10,800 families. These people were camped out for blocks along the river. We had a population explosion. Gasoline was a problem, food was a problem. Thank God they weren't shooting at us when the levees were breaking."
Right after the storm, United Way converted Zion Chapel AME Church into a distribution center, closing the Sunday school for six weeks. But that center quickly ran out of food, clothing and other essential items.
That's where the Jewish high-school students helped out, spending $50 each at a local Wal-Mart to restock the distribution center with everything ranging from diapers to baby food to shoes.
"We made sure each student got to pick what he or she would have wanted if everything they had got destroyed," said Yardeni-Funk, adding that the money came from $10,000 the school had raised through a dozen or so fund-raising activities in Los Angeles.
In addition, the 117 Milken students and faculty visiting Natchez helped do simple construction work as well as paint a house now being finished by Habitat for Humanity. They also repainted the interior walls of the Natchez Children's Home, one of the nation's oldest orphanages.
"This was a very difficult time for us," said Natchez Mayor Phillip West. "Many of those people left home intending to stay no more than a day or so. I had only been the mayor for one year, and I had no idea this was going to happen. But God has a way of working things out."
Right before the church concert, townspeople prepared a strictly kosher fried tilapia dinner for their Jewish guests — a challenge in itself, said Stephens.
"The most difficult thing was understanding exactly what kosher is, and how to cook it Southern-style," said Stephens. "The school bought them pots, pans and utensils, and donated them to the church afterwards. They also donated all the art supplies they had to the school system. The impact here was great."
After the concert, West presented Dr. Rennie Wrubel, headmaster of Milken Community High School, with a key to the city.
"When we heard about Katrina, we knew we had to act, but we just didn't know where we'd put our efforts. 'Beshirt' means meant to be in Yiddish, and I believe this was beshirt, that we were meant to come to your community," Wrubel told the mayor. "I couldn't think of a place I'd rather be."
Apparently, this is not the first time Jews have done something for the town.
"Back in the early 1900s, the Jewish merchants were the ones who saved Natchez when the boll weevil ate up all the cotton. We lost that industry, and the Jews kept the town going," explained Stephens of United Way. "Interestingly enough, at the time the church was built, it was the height of Judaism here. There were 117 Jewish families in Natchez — which is exactly how many kids and staff we had here at church the other night."
Stephens said that, with the 2006 hurricane season now underway, community leaders will soon conduct a drill to see how well Natchez responds to another crisis.
"We're trying to sharpen our skills," she said. "We're a small community, so caregivers are extremely tired. We haven't had a break, and now we're going into another hurricane season. Our biggest question is: can we all physically hold up if something happens?"