In The Wake of Hurricane Katrina:
A Call To Action 10 Years Later
by Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner
August 28, 2015
Shalom from my new perch in South Florida, where I am Director of Jewish Learning, Engagement & Outreach at the David Posnack JCC. There are many images I can share with you of summertime in South Florida, but this is not why I am writing. Images of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall ten years ago, are playing in my head, and I am writing to share these images with you in retrospect.
In August 2005 I was the Rabbi at the Northshore Jewish Congregation in the New Orleans suburb of Mandeville.
You saw the images of a flooded city. You saw the photo of the Orthodox Rabbis wading in waist deep water carrying destroyed Torahs out of the synagogue to be buried.
Let me tell you one more story. I’ll tell you one story of an average American family who lived through the crisis. I’ll tell you the story of a Katrina survivor who happens to be a Rabbi. It was Sunday, August 28, 2005. Hurricane Katrina was a category 5 storm bearing down on New Orleans. Like most New Orleanians, my family and I had evacuated. We were in the home of my in-laws in Western Louisiana. We were nervous about the effects of the storm but we had done this before. In each case we returned after three days to a city that dodged bullet after bullet.
We went to sleep the night of Sunday, August 28, hoping to wake up Monday morning and know that all was clear and we could think about going home. And with relief, we woke up and found that Katrina grazed the side of the city. We saw the images on television Monday morning of an intact city.
And then we watched it happen on TV – there was a levee break at the 17th street Canal, the canal that bordered some of New Orleans’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where a sizeable portion of New Orleans’ Jewish population lived. We watched the engineers bring
helicopters with concrete blocks to repair the breech in the levee. We heard the mayor of New Orleans scream on live TV as we heard his response to watching the repair efforts fail. We watched the city of New Orleans flood. My family and I had no idea what happened to our neighborhood. We lived in a suburb outside of the city from which there were no news reports. We could find no community news, no websites, no local information. We didn’t know if we had a house or not.
When, a week later, my wife and I were able to return home for the first time, we had no power.
There was a tree on our house. But, thankfully for us, the tree only landed ON our roof, over the attic. A branch broke through my older daughter’s rooms. When we finally told her, “Leah, we have some news
for you. The tree broke through your room and a branch is sticking out of your wall,” she responded, “Now my room looks like a natural habitat! Can we keep it there??”
We were able to move back after three weeks when the power went back on. We
struggled with the insurance and the contractors but for us personally this ended up being an aggravation and a nuisance, not a crisis.
But I was also the Rabbi at my synagogue, not just a husband, father and homeowner. The synagogue lost its roof.
But that’s not what was the catastrophe.
After Katrina hit, five of my six executive board members were in crisis. My president was an attorney in New Orleans. His firm was closed, his clients were gone. No courts, no cases. No cases, no income. The vice president was a mortgage broker in New Orleans. His office was destroyed. He began working to set up shop in our neighborhood. But the city was destroyed. No home sales, no mortgages. No mortgages, no income.
My second vice president fell and broke her leg while returning to her home to inspect the damage after the storm hit.
Our board secretary’s house disappeared in a storm surge.
A storm surge washed away her entire neighborhood. Where an entire neighborhood stood there was nothing left other than a row of slabs.
My treasurer’s New Orleans business was destroyed.
That was just my executive committee.
I had a congregant holed up in his home with no power. His roads were blocked in. His power went out. No power, no food, no water.
Weeks later when I was speaking with him he asked me, “Do I have to fast again for Yom Kippur since I already fasted after the storm?” I’m going to change names, but the stories are real. I called a congregant, Betty, so see how she was doing.
“I’m doing just fine,” she said, “but call Mildred. Mildred’s house was severely damaged.” So I called Mildred and asked her how she was doing. She said, “I’m doing fine, but do me a favor. My friend Betty – she had four trees fall into her house and she’s in real financial distress.” I asked Mildred, “How are you doing, do you need anything?” and she said, “No, we’re doing okay, just need a little help, but please check on Betty.” So I called Betty back and asked her about the trees in her house, “Oh Rabbi,” Betty said, “it’s a problem, but nothing
like what Mildred is facing, please check in on her.”
I had a congregant, a divorced mom, whose house was damaged and she was living on a houseboat because she had nowhere else to live. Her ex-husband was able to get sole custody of their children by convincing the court that a houseboat is not a stable environment in which to raise children.
I had a congregant whose house flooded and business flooded. The insurance wouldn’t cover most of their possessions either in their home or business for some complicated reasons.
The husband and wife, after they cleaned out their business, slept on the floor in their store while their 8-year-old son lived with a relative in a different home.
I had a congregant, a single mom with a 10-year-old daughter, whose rented home flooded in a storm surge. When she went back to her destroyed home she could not claim her possessions because when she arrived there were looters rampaging through her house. She had to wait until they were finished until she could claim what little was left. And then she found herself with no home, and she lost her job because the business she worked for was destroyed in the storm. No job, no home, few possessions and a daughter to take care of. The story that bore itself on my soul more than any other, the story I heard from another New Orleans Rabbi, was a Rabbi who had received some gift card donations to hand out to congregants in need. He asked one family, an average, Jewish middle class family, who he knew was affected by the storm – he asked the
“A storm surge washed
away her entire
an entire neighborhood
stood there was nothing
left other than a row of
parents if they needed help and they said no, they were doing fine. So as a Hanukkah gift to the family he handed a Walmart gift card to the young son. And this young congregant, this child who could be anyone of our children, said to the Rabbi, with joy and enthusiasm,
“Now I can get some long pants so my legs won’t be cold!”
This could be any one of us.
Now I can get some long pants so my legs won’t be cold.
People lost homes, people lost businesses, people lost jobs, had to fight with insurance companies who wouldn’t make payments until a contractor was hired, fight with contractors who wouldn’t sign contracts without a down payment; they had to fight with mortgage companies who took checks from the insurance companies and who wouldn’t release payments until home repair had begun but people couldn’t begin home repair because contractors wouldn’t sign contracts without down payments. And the individual families were caught in the middle of all of these bureaucracies.
Where does one find hope in these stories?
I’ll tell you. Never before in my life did I FEEL so much that it mattered to be part of the Jewish community.
It wasn’t long after the storm hit before we received calls from the Union for Reform Judaism, who linked us up with congregations and individuals around the country. We received offers from Jews around the entire United States to take in families into their homes and give them a place to live during the disaster.
We received donations of canned food, clothing, chainsaws and generators, money and gift cards to distribute to our congregants.
Within a month after the storm I received a $10,000 check from money collected from the URJ to give to our congregants in crisis and to keep our Temple open. We had congregants who moved permanently. We had congregants no longer able to pay dues. We had congregants who on August 28 were among the Temple’s biggest donors and on August 29 became recipients of tzedakah. It was support from the nationwide Jewish community that kept our synagogue open and kept our congregants afloat.
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) collected millions of dollars and with the assistance of NECHAMA –Jewish Response to Disaster - allocated it to Jews in the New Orleans area. Every Jewish adult in New Orleans who had sustained any kind of loss received a payment of $700 just by filling out a simple form and meeting with a counselor from Jewish Family Service. JFNA helped people with their needs, connected them to the Jewish community and helped Jewish Family Service
identify people in emotional crisis who might not have otherwise come forward.
Let me talk about that. It wasn’t easy for Jewish donors to receive tzedakah. To model that ability to accept help, on Yom Kippur I told my congregants that now was the time to get help. If ever there was a purpose for tzedakah it was to help people in crisis. The ideal purpose of tzedakah is to help people in need, to bridge the gap from when they were okay to when they’ll be okay again.
I was one of them. I told my congregation that I, too, suffered. While I still had my job as their Rabbi, I lost my job at the New Orleans Jewish Day School. While I had my house, I had thousands of dollars in uncovered damages. I told them how I accepted the financial help being offered to us to keep us on our feet during this difficult time. I told them that so that they would know it’s okay to accept help. Because as I said, Mildred would only tell me about Betty’s needs and Betty would only tell me about Mildred’s needs, not about their own. They needed to know it was okay to accept support during this crisis.
With my own personal losses, I don’t know how my family would have made it without the financial help from around the country.
By sharing with my own congregants on Yom Kippur, barriers were removed and more people came forward and accepted the help they needed so that they could rebuild their lives.
We lost so many congregants to relocation and so many more congregants who simply couldn’t pay their dues because of their own personal crises that without the national URJ support we
would have had no synagogue to help our people emotionally and spiritually during the biggest natural disaster that ever hit the United States. I am certain that many of you contributed to the Hurricane relief funds.
I know that you came forward and helped and let me tell you – your support did not go into some general administrative fund. Your donations helped that single mom feed her child and find a home when the flood left her homeless. Your donation helped those Temple leaders buy food for their family and pay their mortgages when they were completely out of work.
I know because day after day I drove from home to home delivering checks directly into people’s hands with money donated to us to help our members in crisis.
Your donation helped a Rabbi and his family pay their mortgage and fix their property when he lost part of his income and had thousands of dollars of expenses not covered by insurance. Your donation helped a child buy long pants so his legs would not be cold.
And how else did the Jewish community help? Remember when the federal government didn’t know how to get water to the Superdome with
10,000 people in it? Eric Stillman and Adam Bronstone of the New Orleans Jewish Federation were in Baton Rouge organizing rescue missions with the Baton Rouge Sheriff’s office and within a day were in New Orleans on Baton Rouge Sheriff’s rescue boats saving Jews AND NON-JEWS stranded in their homes, on second floors in the flood waters. They were on the boats and in the floods rescuing Jews, not just sitting in an office.
The Rabbi of Baton Rouge relayed a story of how he helped to house an elderly Holocaust survivor saved from the floods by the Jewish Federation’s rescue mission.
Here was a man rescued after the Holocaust by the Joint Distribution Committee and then a second time in his life by the Jewish Federation. The institutions that existed in order to help us – Allstate and State Farm, and the Federal government - left so many stranded. The Jewish community came in and literally rescued people from the flood waters and provided direct and immediate financial assistance, support, supplies and organizational infrastructure to help us in our time of crisis. All of these organizations that always ask us for money were there to help us during our time of greatest need.
When a mission of Jewish leaders from the URJ came to New Orleans I shared with them my reflections and I share with you now the greatest lesson I learned from surviving Hurricane Katrina.
In Florida many Jews went through the devastation of Andrew, and Wilma, and many can identify with many of the aspects of the
stories I shared with you. In the future no area of our country is immune – from devastating snows in the northeast, fires in the west, tornadoes in the heartland, and earthquakes in California. What I told those Reform leaders is that I’ve been on missions before – missions to Israel and a mission to the former Soviet Union. Our community leaders and
volunteers have been on missions to South America and Ethiopia.
The difference, I told these leaders, was that I never imagined being on the receiving end of such a
mission. We were always visitors, visiting exotic lands, foreign countries in which we represented the powerful American culture. Some of those visiting on that mission were people I knew, my friends. I wasn’t meeting them for the first time but reuniting with them. I told them that the difference was that the people they were visiting were just like them, just like any other American community, and that one day in the future they might live in an area that suffers a major disaster, that one day you might go from being one of the community’s donors to becoming one of the community’s recipients of tzedakah, and if that happened we would then return the favor and be there for them.
“The people you are visiting today are yourselves -we are you,” I told them.
Never before was I more grateful – not to be a Rabbi, not to be a synagogue member, but to be
a Jew. I look back to that struggle and so appreciate the support from so many around us, like NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster, from the packages of gift cards, the offers of help, the donations of checks and the calls – the constant calls and emails of support from other Rabbis.
As I look back to that, never before have I been more proud to be a member of the Jewish community. And THAT was the greatest lesson I learned from surviving the worst natural disaster to hit our nation. As Moshe Dayan once said, “All we ask you to do is feel Jewish, because then you’ll do what a Jew does when another Jew is in trouble. You will help.” And YOU did. You can again. Go to
www.nechama.org to support survivors of
Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner
NECHAMA is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit. All donations made to NECHAMA are tax deductible.