As refugees from Hurricane Katrina fanned out across the country, Jewish communities nationwide began to feel the effect as evacuees arrived on their doorsteps.
The Jewish communities closest to New Orleans have been most fully engaged in the relief work. It is estimated that half of the ruined city’s 10,000 Jews went to Houston. The Houston Jewish federation has mobilized every rung of its communal infrastructure to help the refugees. The federation’s offices are now the home of the New Orleans Jewish federation, and all the local schools and synagogues are involved in caring for the evacuees.
In Baton Rouge, La., one synagogue in town is serving as a shelter and the other as a processing center for refugees. As relief work began,
the Jewish communities were well positioned to click into action. Most federations have extensive experience with all the skills needed in the current relief effort, including raising money, resettling refugees and finding jobs for those who have lost them. In Atlanta, the Jewish community’s Zaban Night Shelter already has filled up its 22 rooms with evacuees from New Orleans, and the Marcus Jewish Community Center has found additional permanent housing for 20 families through a service designed to help elderly Atlantans find roommates.
Beyond the immediate circle of cities within driving distance of the disaster, almost every Jewish organization in the country has mobilized to aid the evacuees. Massive fund-raising campaigns are being carried out by many national Jewish organizations. United Jewish Communities is leading the way, with close to $4 million raised as of Wednesday. On a more tangible level, the federations in Miami and in Los Angeles have begun receiving phone calls for assistance from refugees who found their way to the coasts. Callers were looking for help finding jobs and apartments, and Hebrew schools for their children.
One indication of the dispersed patterns of migration is the fate of Rabbi Andrew Busch, religious leader of Touro Synagogue, New Orleans’s oldest Jewish congregation. Busch assumed his position just last June, and he officiated over his first bar mitzvah on the Saturday that Katrina’s first winds were felt. As soon as the August 27 service was over, Busch went home, packed up and headed out of the city with his wife and two children. Their first stop was the Reform movement’s summer camp in Utica, Miss. When the extent of the flooding was clear three days later, Busch took his family to his in-laws’ home in Illinois.
He has been there for the past week, attempting to locate the members of his 640-family congregation. Busch eventually located his synagogue’s president in Memphis, Tenn., and his educational director in Park City, Utah. His cantor and treasurer are in Houston. The only staff members he still has not managed to locate are the two janitors.
“We are beside ourselves thinking about them,” Busch said, speaking from a cell phone while driving through Oklahoma.
Busch was on his way to Dallas where he had a meeting planned on Wednesday for all the refugees in the city. Later in the day he was expected to arrive in Houston, where he was planning to stay, with his family, for the foreseeable future. Beth Israel, a Reform congregation in Houston, has found the Busch family an apartment and offered to give Busch and his wife, who is also a rabbi, office space for an anticipated period of time. Busch’s three children were expected to start at Beth Israel’s Jewish day school on Thursday, free of charge; Jewish day schools nationwide are offering free tuition to stranded students.
Along with Congregation Emanu El, Beth Israel is one of two Reform congregations in Houston that were delegated the task of finding evacuees new homes.. Myra Lipper, program director of Congregation Emanu El, was given the task of running the home-placement program. She worked steadily over the weekend, and estimates that thus far she has helped match up 50 families with hosts in Houston.
“The stories that people tell us of what they don’t have anymore…,” Lipper said, trailing off, tired from the long hours she has put in. “Every phone call is another whole story.”
Each synagogue and Jewish organization in Houston has been given a different responsibility by Houston’s federation, which is coordinating the operation. Last Tuesday, the CEO of Houston’s Seven Acres Jewish Geriatric Center helped find places in area nursing homes for the 300 seniors who were evacuated from New Orleans’s Jewish facility.
The Jewish community in Houston is part of an interfaith coalition that was given the task of feeding the evacuees living in Houston’s George Brown Convention Center, which currently houses 1,700 people. The Jewish community was given the week of September 28 to October 4, along with the Hindu and Episcopalian communities. Each day, 800 volunteers will be needed.
While Houston is hunkering down for the long haul, closer to the disaster area, in Baton Rouge, the Jewish community is still in rescue mode. The Jewish federation and two synagogues in the city have twice sent convoys of vans to New Orleans to look for survivors; similar missions have gone out with Chabad Lubavitch rabbis. Accompanied by sheriffs and fishery officials, the teams from Baton Rouge went as far as they could on foot and then continued by boat. On Sunday they set out with addresses of Jewish families thought to be stranded, but they helped any other people they found.
A member of Baton Rouge’s Temple Beth Shalom provided housing for one black family found in New Orleans. The rabbi at Beth Shalom, Stanton Zemek, helped another black couple track down a daughter in Maryland whom they had not seen in years. When Zemek called the couple’s daughter, he told her, “We have your parents.” She screamed out, “Thank you, Jesus!” The Baton Rouge federation paid to put the couple on a flight to Maryland.
It is estimated that the population of Baton Rouge has doubled to 1 million people in the past week. The Jewish community, which had stood at about 400, is now thought to be close to 2,000. Zemek’s wife was the part-time head of Baton Rouge’s Jewish federation, but in the past week her position has been elevated to full-time executive director. One of the more recent tasks for the community was finding housing for a team that came from New York to recover body parts from the wreckage in New Orleans and treat them according to rabbinic law.
For most communities, glimpses of the disaster are less macabre. In Miami, five families coming from the affected area have contacted the federation so far, only two needing immediate housing. At Syracuse University in New York, seven students from New Orleans’s Tulane University showed up at the opening barbecue held by the Hillel Jewish student center. Syracuse has registered 300 students from Tulane, 30 of whom are thought to be Jewish.
The executive director of New Orleans Hillel, Paige Nathan, ended up with her husband and her two children in Baltimore, where her parents live. She has kept in contact with her other four staff members, who are now in Florida, Mississippi, New York and Louisiana. In Baltimore she is planning a Monday night session for the Tulane students there, and she’s hearing from people she never had seen before.
“People are coming out that never sought out the federation, because they know they can count on the Jewish community,” Nathan said.