by Michael J. Weil
When Hurricane Sandy hit the North East of the United States it struck an emotional chord in the hearts of New Orleanians. The Super Storm was massive in size and strength affecting an area populated by over 20 million people.
For the citizens of New Orleans, hurricanes are a way of life. The Gulf Coast is prone to bad weather and every twenty years there is a major hurricane and its accompanying destruction. But every two to three years, a significant hurricane threatens the city and everyone is asked to evacuate. This has become a way of life. Two years after Katrina, the citizens of New Orleans were called to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Gustav in 2007 and as recently as this August, Hurricane Isaac pounded the city again causing some significant damage. With the help of national funding from JFNA, Jewish Federation was able to help families whose homes sustained major damage.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a milestone. A giant storm that caused huge destruction and breached the levees that were improperly maintained by the Corps of Engineers. Massive failure at all levels of government followed and the rest is history. But from a Jewish perspective, it is a history that will never be forgotten. Both because of the scale of destruction that impacted most of the Jewish community, with many losing their homes and everyone locked out of the city for months. But also because of the extraordinary outpour of aid, both financial and human, that followed. All of the national Jewish institutions responded and the then United Jewish Communities (now JFNA) and the federation system raised $28 million to support recovery and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast. Tens of thousands of Jewish volunteers flocked to New Orleans over the last seven years to help the rebuilding effort.
It was not therefore surprising that New Orleans responded strongly to Hurricane Sandy. While many mid-size communities contributed modest sums towards the relief fund for Sandy, the Jewish community in New Orleans – through the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana – raised close to $50,000; a considerable sum for a community of only 9600 that has only recently replenished its population lost over Katrina.
At next gen events of Federation, young people are donating gift cards while others are making a pilgrimage up North to help in person. Many synagogues have sent delegations to help rebuilding and express solidarity with damaged congregations up North.
Leading the congregational effort has been Rabbi Uri Topolowsky of Beth Israel, the synagogue that was completely devastated by Katrina and recently inaugurated its new premises. Rabbi Topolosky just returned from a fact finding tour of the North East and extended help to many families and congregations.
New Orleans is also able to help in unique ways that no other community can. During the years of recovery from Katrina, the Jewish Federation has developed many best practices, procedures and documentation that deal with preparation for disasters, immediate response, aid to families and institutions, counseling, infrastructure repair and long term rebuilding and renewal. The community is better prepared than ever and happy to share too.
We have been in contact with many of our sister federations in the North East, and in particular the UJA Federation of New York and the Federation of Greater Metro West as well as others in New Jersey. We have offered assistance, and shared our skills, experience and tools with them.
What is clear to them as it became clear to us during Katrina is that at the time of disasters federations have a central and unique role to play. Because of its wide reach, its community role and national connections, federation is best positioned to help a community when facing the challenges of a hurricane. I am pleased to say that all the New York and New Jersey federations have indeed risen to the occasion. They have been among the first on the scene, helped both families and institutions, brought volunteers and provided urgently needed funded in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, we as Jews have experienced disasters of all kinds over the millennia. And it brings out the best in us. It makes us feel part of a big Jewish family. Something to be grateful for this time of year.
Michael J. Weil is Executive Director of Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.