How have our own congregations been affected by Hurricane Katrina?
Katrina resulted in the total cessation of Jewish life in New Orleans—a communal Jewish life that has been flourishing for more than 150 years. The city is home to some of our nation's oldest and most beautiful congregations. Two of the four area synagogues—Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai—were in non-flooded areas, but Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie sustained flooding in the sanctuary and Northshore Jewish Congregation in Mandeville had serious roof damage. As even the driest of sacred items can be harmed by humidity and mold, which have been in abundance in New Orleans, a team of rabbis and Movement leaders, including Religious Action Center Director Rabbi David Saperstein, quickly drove to the congregations and brought the Torahs and other sacred objects to Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge for safekeeping.
How did temple leaders stay in touch with their members?
Immediately after the hurricane, the Union established bulletin boards so that members could post their whereabouts and stay in contact with fellow congregants. Also, since the synagogue leaders had left the city and no longer had access to their computer files, we provided each congregation with its Reform Judaism membership roster so it could contact members and offer support. We held weekly calls with their leaders and organized a Movement-wide conference call to brief leaders throughout the nation on the status of the New Orleans congregations and what they could do to help. In addition, through daily web updates and weekly e-mails to 15,000 synagogue leaders, we've kept the Movement informed, which in turn has led to over $2.4 million in donations—the most successful disaster relief campaign ever organized by the Union.
How have congregations taken action?
There has been an outpouring of support from congregations large and small. Three communities in particular have performed heroically. In Baton Rouge, Temple B'nai Israel opened a shelter for evacuees and Beth Shalom organized the rescue of sacred objects from the New Orleans synagogues. Members of Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi opened their homes to significant numbers of refugees, and in Houston, Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Emanu-El provided office and worship space to many evacuees. Congregations across the Movement have helped in resettlement efforts. To cite just one example, Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas adopted an extended family of 31 people—five generations—who lost their homes and all their belongings. Members of the congregation met with the displaced family at their Dallas motel to assess their needs, and then the entire community swung into action. Within a day money was collected and leases were signed for seven apartments. Congregants collected and/or bought and delivered furniture (including 24 new beds) and household items. By Shabbat, all 31 evacuees had settled into their new homes.
In addition to facilitating communications, what else has the Union done to assist disaster victims?
We are part of a massive deployment of volunteers mobilized by America's organized religious community. People talk about organized religion being an oxymoron, but in reality it is the organized religious community—free of red tape—which has proven the most capable of immediate response to the ravages of Katrina. The Union promptly opened and publicized its Hurricane Katrina relief fund (to contribute, visit www.urj.org/relief), and as soon as funds came pouring in, we distributed them to local agencies delivering on-the-ground relief to evacuees. We also initiated a project called JACOBS' LADDER through which we solicit emergency supplies from Reform congregants across the nation; store them at a warehouse/relief distribution center in Utica, Mississippi; and then disburse the supplies as needed. Every day, we ship tons of food and clothing and other items identified as most needed by our partner agencies--primarily ministries serving evacuees on the ground in the Gulf and Mississippi Delta regions. We post the "most needed" list on our website and congregations send us materials by truck or UPS; Union staffers and other volunteers sort the donations in our warehouse; trucks provided by the direct service agencies pull up at our loading dock; and our volunteers load the supplies onto the trucks.
The Union staff members who've coordinated this effort have been nothing less than spectacular. Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of Regions, and Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of our Commission on Social Action, are heading up our hurricane response team, supervising the distribution of funds and organizing daily and weekly phone calls with New Orleans congregational leaders to address the needs of their communities. David Berkman, assistant director of our camping system, conceived of the relief distribution center idea along with Henry S. Jacobs Camp director Jonathan Cohen, and has coordinated all of the logistics, turning a vacant shirt factory into a functioning distribution warehouse complete with everything from shelving to a computer system. And Rabbi Edie Mencher, a clinical social worker who serves as assistant director of our Department of Jewish Family Concerns, has traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to counsel victims; similar counseling efforts are underway in Houston and in Baton Rouge.
You yourself went to Jackson. What was the purpose of your visit?
I had two primary goals. One was to hand-deliver money from our Katrina Relief Fund to relief agencies that could use it immediately—FedEx is still spotty there. One of our largest checks was endorsed to the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, which runs a wonderful credit union called Hope Community Credit Union (HCCU). When FEMA decided to distribute checks instead of debit cards to evacuees, HCCU recognized that the majority of the newly homeless were poor individuals who did not have bank accounts into which the FEMA monies could be deposited, so they decided to open branches in evacuee shelters. They're opening individual bank accounts for the evacuees into which all individuals, regardless of prior means, can deposit their checks and have access to cash. We are very proud to help underwrite this effort.
In Jackson I also visited our 195-family Beth Israel Congregation, which has been in a whirlwind of activity since the hurricane. Literally hundreds of families have funneled through the congregation, and each has received cash to help them during the transition. In addition, many congregants are opening their homes to evacuees--people who may have to remain there for months. Using our disaster relief funds, the Union is replenishing the temple's resources so Beth Israel can continue to support the families passing through.
That Shabbat, I was the guest speaker at Friday night services. A large number of non-Jews, both Christians and Muslims, were in attendance to demonstrate their solidarity. Also present was a contingent of Jewish Red Cross volunteers who were working in various Mississippi shelters and wanted to be with other Jews on the Sabbath. But to me, the most moving moment was when I asked all those who had lost their homes in New Orleans and were now accepting the hospitality of the Jackson community to join me on the bimah for a special blessing. Soon, more than fifty people were standing by my side, and it was my turn to thank them for allowing us the privilege of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. At that moment the evacuees didn't feel like they were receiving, but that they were giving to us, which they were. I think we all felt very proud of being Jews, of witnessing how our Jewish values had compelled us to act in the midst of a national tragedy.