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Katrina unexpectedly energizes Jewish life in Louisiana's capital
JTA / July 31, 2006

By Larry Luxner

BATON ROUGE, La. Eleven months ago this week, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and turned the state capital, Baton Rouge, into Louisiana's largest metropolis virtually overnight.

Yet in an unexpected way, Katrina has also challenged and energized Jewish life in a city of 500,000 people and only two synagogues.

"More Jews evacuated to Houston [after Katrina], but the impact on Baton Rouge was much greater because we didn't have the infrastructure," said Rabbi Martha Bergadine, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge. "The Jewish community here is approximately 30% larger than before."

That's because 350 to 400 New Orleans Jews who fled to Baton Rouge have decided to remain there for now. This is in addition to the 1,200 Jews already living in the state capital, which had a pre-Katrina population of around 250,000.

Bergadine said many of the newcomers have benefitted from a $1 million grant from United Jewish Communities. The grant provides infrastructure for those displaced people from New Orleans under the Jewish Community Partnership.

"People felt they were living through something historic and life-changing. They knew their lives would somehow be different after Katrina]" she said. "Our concern is that people are still traumatized psychologically. For example, the social networks of many seniors have been totally uprooted. The people they talked to every day for 20 years are now scattered."

Bergadine, who directs three part-time staffers at the federation, said caseworkers are still helping "people who don't need therapy, but who need guidance dealing with different organizations and referrals."

Real-estate is still at a premium in Baton Rouge, and vacant apartments are very hard to find, said Erich Sternberg, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge.

"We must continue to support the people who are here and continue to make them feel welcome, whether they decide to stay permanently or whether they go back home," he said. "Secondly, we must encourage and nurture some of the good things that have come out of this experience."

For instance, said Sternberg, "we're planning our first Baton Rouge Jewish film festival for January 2007 here, and we're doing that through the Southern Jewish Institutes in Jackson, Miss. There have been a lot of initiatives that, in the past, people would not have necessarily taken the time to do. Since Katrina, the Jewish community has really stepped up its act."

That community is almost exclusively Reform; Baton Rouge has virtually no Orthodox Jews to speak of.

It does have two synagogues, B'nai Israel, considered liberal, and Beth Shalom, considered "traditional Reform." Both received lots of media attention last hurricane season, but for very different reasons.

Beth Shalom suffered extensive hurricane damage not from Katrina, but from Hurricane Rita, which came only three weeks later.

"Rain collected on the roof, came through and destroyed the interior, wrecking both our sanctuary and our social hall," said Rabbi Stanton M. Zamek, who's married to Bergadine . "At the very minimum, we had over $535,000 in damage, so we had the additional burden of rebuilding after Rita."

Zamek added: "We weren't hit by Katrina the way folks in New Orleans were, but we have many family and social ties to that community, and people are still fairly haunted by it."

"We're very worried about what's going to happen in the new hurricane season. Lots of people are still in trailers, and they'll be very inclined to evacuate very quickly. Now we have some inkling what it'll be like when waves of people start coming from New Orleans into this city."

Robert Krupkin, vice-president of the board of Beth Shalom, said the synagogue has 140 member families and that it's raised $410,000 so far to fund the necessary repairs.

In addition to money from United Jewish Communities, the Union for Reform Judaism has also contributed specific funds for area relief, including $60,000 to the Working Interfaith Network of Baton Rouge, $10,000 to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, $10,000 to the Katrina Relief Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, and $10,000 in "mini-grants" to each of the city's two Reform synagogues.

Meanwhile, at least one Jewish institution has seen its popularity grow dramatically since Katrina: the Hillel at Louisiana State Univeristy.

Jeffrey Lahasky, who's from the Louisiana town of New Iberia, says LSU's Hillel now has 160 students, "which is amazing, considering we didn't have even five only two and a half years ago."

Moshe Cohen, Hillel's local interim program director and a 24-year-old grad student in mathematics, said that when he arrived at LSU, there was no visible Jewish culture.

"The organization sort of got momentum a year ago, and it was just perfect timing because when the hurricane happened, luckily enough, we were here," said Cohen, who's from Westchester County, N.Y. "It was wonderful to serve as a beacon for Jewish life."

English professor Daniel Novak, who doubles as Hillel faculty advisor at LSU, says Hillel doesn't have its own building or house on campus, but meets regularly outdoors or at people's homes.

"Jewish students from Louisiana end up going to schools in places like Texas and Georgia, because we never had many Jews on campus or an established Hillel house," said Novak, who recently co-founded Sigma Alpha Mu, LSU's first Jewish fraternity in 20 years.

He adds that LSU has just begun offering a minor in Jewish studies for the first time in the university's history.

"We're not trying to replace New Orleans as a hub for Jewish life in Louisiana, but rather use this as an opportunity to welcome any Jews from New Orleans, to make LSU a place where Jews can come and feel comfortable," he said. "Our ambition is to make this a school that Jews from the entire state will flock to."

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