Tuesday, August 29, 2006

After Katrina: Category 5 kindness

It was exactly one year ago. Storm hit New Orleans, turning Mardi-Gras city into rubble. Local Chabad rabbi writes to Ynetnews about days following disaster, and about one good-hearted act, that infused hope into hearts of all

Rabbi Yossie Nemes

New Orleans: As today is the one-year anniversary of Katrina we reminisce about the passed year. Pre-Katrina Greater New Orleans was a city of 1.3 million inhabitants, amongst them 12,000 Jews, half of whom have not returned. The life of every single New Orleanian was shaken to the core and changed forever by Katrina.

We remember levees breaking and 80 percent of the city inundated by water. We remember the 1,700 that passed away. We remember the members of the Jewish community, mostly elderly, who passed away during, or immediately after, the storm.

We remember being exiled from our homes and being scattered throughout the country at a moments notice. We remember losing our homes to which many of us are still unable to return. We remember losing our jobs or at least three-four months of income. We remember confronting, upon our return, a situation far worse than we imagined.

Looking forward, the challenges of rebuilding New Orleans are still quite overwhelming.

At the same time we look back at this year as a most remarkable one. We witnessed unity and kindness the likes of which are very rare. We witnessed the heroic search and rescue. We witnessed friends and neighbors risking their lives to help others.

We witnessed the support, moral and financial, of the communities to which we evacuated. We witnessed a family like camaraderie with all who returned. We witnessed meaningful assistance from Jews throughout North America. We are experiencing a unique energy known only to pioneers ready to rebuild despite all odds.

Chain reaction

I would like to share with you one of our Post-Katrina programs, which is very illustrative of our situation in New Orleans. This program also reminds us that one act of goodness and kindness can start a chain reaction that can literally help many hundreds of people.

We reopened our flooded Chabad Jewish Center for Yom Kippur. Of course we had no walls as they were gutted, no carpets, and no furniture. With almost no groceries and certainly no kosher food available, how do you feed the people before and after Yom Kippur?

A very kind woman from Kendall, Florida, called me a couple of weeks before Yom Kippur and offered to do something that will help people directly. So I told her that we were getting together for Yom Kippur and I have no idea how to feed everybody.

She asked me how many people we expected. Knowing the situation on the ground I said thirty. This wonderful lady hired a Florida caterer to send pre and post Yom Kippur meals. This was the only fresh kosher food available within hundreds of miles in any direction.

Eighty people came; half locals who managed to find a place to sleep, and half FEMA, Red Cross and rescue personnel. Amazingly there was enough food and even some left over’s. After a very uplifting Yom Kippur, tinged with the sadness of all those present being away from their families – there was not a single child in Shul – we put the leftover food in our administrators freezer.

Shabbat miracle

The day after Yom Kippur I was supposed to go back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat and Sukkot. My noon flight was delayed for three hours. I was “forced” to remain for Shabbat in New Orleans. Looking back I can see the obvious divine providence of getting stuck in New Orleans.

Upon my return from the airport, I gathered together, after many calls, ten men and one woman for Friday night services. The woman, Sarah Chaya, came and warmed the food in our only appliance to survive Katrina, an oven. She somehow got paper goods and fresh vegetables and we had Shabbat dinner and a Shabbat lunch though we fell short with the minyan on Shabbat morning.

During the Friday night meal, people said this was very nice “we knew we had to be in New Orleans, we did not know, however, we would be with friends and have a kosher Friday night meal.” It was decided to have Friday night dinners every week.

Since October, every single week, we host Friday night and Shabbat dinners which are open to all. These dinners attract a diverse group and have grown to well over a hundred people attending each weekend and are still growing.

As people find themselves without family and friends, we have become their new family. Though it began as a practical need, people don’t have kitchens in which to cook, many people have told us that the dinners, and the socializing, are their source of strength and support during these difficult times.

Thank you

In conclusion, I thank Hashem for all the kindness and miracles He has shown our family this year. I thank my fellow New Orleanians who have become our extended family.

Finally, I thank the Jewish community of North America for your prayers and your support. Whether you sent thirty dollars or thirty meals, you have triggered a Category Five surge of kindness which has flooded New Orleans and is surely inundating our entire land.

I dedicate this article to all who donated to Katrina relief, such as to the Chabad, UJC and OU funds, and to the many that helped directly.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes lives with his wife and children in New Orleans, in an apartment, while their home is being rebuilt.

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