Fifteen Years after Katrina: Lessons for August 2020

Menorah with one arm broken off, in Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans, taken April 2006. Photo courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive and Rick Weil.

By Karla Goldman

Fifteen years ago, the world watched the ravaging impact of Hurricane Katrina in stunned horror. Who would have thought that the failure of infrastructure and government seen then, with its stark exposure of the vulnerability bred of racial inequities, would turn out to be only a mini-dress rehearsal for the crises of 2020?

Like the rest of the nation, the American Jewish community is struggling to respond to COVID-19. Many find themselves on the frontlines as caregivers and victims of the virus. Synagogues and other organizations are seeking to reconstitute themselves on-line, even as thousands of Jewish communal professionals have been furloughed or laid off by Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and other agencies. And, amid worries about what a post-pandemic future will look like, the nation’s ongoing reckoning with racial injustice is challenging American Jews to find a more capacious self-definition that recognizes Jews of Color and others whose views or identities don’t align easily with the mainstream community.

In the face of current challenges, American Jews can look back at an unusually successful response to Katrina fifteen years ago. As the hugely inequitable impact of the storm upon New Orleans’ Black and other marginalized populations was emerging, most, though not all, of the city’s Jews were able to get safely out of the city. Still, these Katrina refugees faced intense challenges of displacement, lack of access to resources, and endless unknowns as homes and businesses were being destroyed. This is where, at a time of general disfunction, the history, organization, and the network of Jewish community made a difference to thousands of Gulf South Jews and many of their neighbors. These same resources may likewise provide strength in responding to the crises of 2020.i

Even though the loss of life and scale of societal damage of COVID-19 dwarfs the profound regional destruction of Katrina, there may yet be important lessons embedded in the Jewish community’s clear-minded response to the overwhelming challenges of that moment:

1. History matters. While carefully distinguishing their own experiences from the ordeals of Jewish history, many Jewish Katrina refugees found meaning in narratives of displacement, diaspora, suffering, and survival. Many expressed a common thought: if my people have been through so much worse, “there is really no reason that I’m not going to get through this.”ii

2. Mainstream institutions do make a difference. When Katrina hit, Jewish communal agencies raised tens of millions of dollars through grass-roots fundraising, connected individuals to resources, and reminded Katrina evacuees that they were not alone. As Jewish New Orleanians spread out across the country, they received generous offers of housing, clothing, furniture, synagogue and JCC memberships, day school tuitions, and access to $700 cash grants – vital support for folks who left town with weekend bags and zero access to funds in shuttered banks.

For the next two years, the national Jewish community provided funds to sustain New Orleans and Gulf South Jewish organizations. As Jewish Family Service executive director, Deena Gerber, described it, “I think the national Jewish community put their arms around us and gave us a big hug.”iii

3. We are in this together.” Before the storm, many New Orleans Jews considered the city’s Orthodox an afterthought. After the storm’s destruction of the city’s main Orthodox synagogue, a transformed understanding of communal interdependence took hold. Both the Reform and Conservative congregations in suburban Metairie offered the Orthodox Beth Israel space to meet in their buildings. Beth Israel took up residence in and, in 2012, erected a new synagogue on land purchased from the Reform congregation, with financial and spiritual support from across the community.

Roselle Ungar, acting director of the local Jewish Federation during and after Katrina, noted the novelty of this shared attention to Orthodox needs. Describing post-Katrina strategic conversations, she recalled, “you hear them talk about how important it is for our community to have a modern Orthodox shul, I’m blown away. Because I think, maybe before Katrina – and not that they wouldn’t have cared, but they wouldn’t have cared!”iv

4. Put your own mask on first. This airline precaution speaks directly to the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting that sometimes the best way to be in a position to help others is to take care of yourself. This could be seen after Katrina in the struggle of leadership and staff to open the downtown JCC and synagogues, enabling them to become vital centers of support and strength for their neighborhoods and communities.

The storm of 2020, with its different dynamics, will no doubt yield different lessons than those derived from the Gulf South storm of 2005. After Katrina, communal leaders reasoned that their tens of millions of dollars represented a drop in the bucket in the face of the destruction left by Katrina. They hoped that support for Jewish community combined with targeted efforts directed toward non-Jews (gift cards, support for hunger organizations, and leveraging community building projects) would be the best way to make a difference to all.

In 2020, the combination of the police killings of unarmed Black citizens and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has heightened the imperative for a different kind of reckoning with the impact and costs of white privilege. These challenges demand new framings that address diverse needs and identities within the Jewish community and reorient understandings of the responsibilities of Jews within the broader tapestry of American pluralism.

Most of us realize that the ability to respond to crisis is built upon qualities and strengths developed in less stressful times. The Jewish response to Katrina reminds us that this same logic can be applied to communities. A crisis offers the opportunity to draw upon established strengths and reach forward for new possibilities implicit in working across differences, even as we hold fast to the essential connections and stories that define who we are.

Karla Goldman is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. She is the immediate past co-chair of the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

i It’s fascinating to note that the New Orleans’ immigrant Vietnamese community and the city’s well-established Jewish community are generally considered to have offered the most effective group responses to Katrina. On the Vietnamese, see Mark J. Vanlandingham, “Post-Katrina, Vietnamese Success,” New York Times, August 14, 2015.

ii Oral history of Deena Gerber, December 12, 2006. Gerber’s interview and the other information about the Jewish experience offered here are found in the Katrina’s Jewish Voices oral history project conducted by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Institute for Southern Jewish Life in 2006 and 2007.

iii Deena Gerber interview.

iv Oral history of Roselle Ungar, August 30, 2006.