Katrina’s Jews: Reflections on Privilege, History, and American Jewish Community

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.
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

Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast exposed the utter vulnerability of those at the bottom of our socio-economic system. The scandal of tens of thousands stranded in a stifling, putrid Superdome or of police officers shooting citizens guilty simply of crossing a bridge crystalized the failure of our societal balancing act. The dismal inability of local, state, and national government to respond to the crisis compounded the breakdown of the city’s physical infrastructure as the levees breached. The storm made clear that for those with limited resources and support networks, there simply is no net. Katrina taught essential lessons about inequality and privilege in contemporary America. Differences in social class, race, and ethnicity had a huge impact on whether individuals could access external resources that could enable them to escape the storm, navigate its aftermath, and rebuild.

Still, the security implicit in cars, bank accounts, trans-regional family and social networks, professional skills, and comprehensive insurance could and did not insulate privileged individuals from the shock that hit all those in New Orleans and much of the Gulf. Displacement, flooding, and destruction afflicted the homes and lives of both rich and poor. As Judge Miriam Waltzer recalled: “it’s a really equal opportunity shocker for everybody. The phones don’t work, the radios don’t work, you don’t have money, you don’t have identification, you don’t have anything to wear, you don’t have a house, your doctors are gone, your friends are gone.”[1] For the period of time in which the storm stripped away the cushioning armor of modern upper-middle-class life, Katrina helped to illuminate the matrix of community and self that subsists often unseen and unacknowledged under the insulation of privilege.

The searing and soaring narratives collected by the Katrina’s Jewish Voices (KJV) – as they capture the experiences of Gulf Jews before, during, and after the storm – also cut to essential questions of twenty-first century Jewish community and identity. Conducted by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life one year after Katrina, KJV records the gut-wrenching experiences of the storm within and outside of New Orleans including those of individuals responsible for hospital patients, rescue efforts, and local Jewish institutions. Beyond losing homes, businesses, and beloved possessions, KJV narrators faced the pain of burying water-logged, rotting Torah scrolls; the angst of being unable to locate a newborn infant; and the horror of knowing your father had died and been left behind in the midst of a nursing home transfer but being unable to retrieve his body. Even those who got off the easiest returned home after weeks of displacement and uncertainty to find carpets and doors eaten by rats and refrigerators infested with maggots.[ 2]

As Katrina evacuees spun out into a vast national diaspora, one might expect that connections beyond one’s close friends and family would disappear in the tumult of finding a place and the means to live. It turned out, however, that being cut off from the usual accouterments of modern life actually threw Jewish identity and community into starker relief and importance for Jewish evacuees. In part, this was because in the face of the radical dysfunction of government recovery efforts, the response of the organized Jewish community was almost shockingly effective. NOLA Jewish leaders quickly created check-in sites at a Houston deli and other locales that drew New Orleans Jews on the move. Each individual contributed whatever contact and location information they had for others – creating a database that helped New Orleans Jews find each other and identifying those still in need of rescue.

The National Disaster Committee of United Jewish Communities, the national arm of the Jewish federation movement, both raised $28 million and used those funds judiciously at the individual (all displaced Jews were eligible to receive $700 cash), communal (area Jewish communal organizations were fully funded for two years), and societal (gift cards to those in need and leveraged support for rebuilding projects throughout the Gulf). In a less coordinated fashion, Jewish evacuees found communities across the country ready to welcome them, find them housing, provide furniture, clothes, synagogue and JCC memberships, and even free tuition at Jewish day schools.[3]

Jewishness conferred not only communal support, but also a lens through which to process the otherwise alien experience of collective loss and displacement. Many KJV narrators described turning to constructs of Jewish history as they sought to understand and give meaning to their experience. For some, displacement threw them back into history – bringing them closer, in an unsettling but also fortifying way, to the patterns of Jewish historical experience

When Sandy Levy had to say goodbye to the friends with whom she’d weathered the first days of the storm, she thought of the conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof and the anxiety of not knowing when or where she’d see them again. The scattering of family and community highlighted the pain of unplanned dispersion. As did many others, Dina Gerber turned to the migration experience of earlier generations as a source of strength: “I’d often think of my grandmother’s experience, of being an immigrant with a five-month old baby, not speaking a word of English, you know, … – and she survived it.”

Although narrators were always careful to differentiate their own experience from the extremities of Jewish history, the Holocaust nevertheless provided a powerful referent for these generally affluent and otherwise secure twenty-first century Jews as they sought to describe their own experience of displacement and loss. As Carol Wise remembered, “I kept thinking about the Holocaust, not that it’s the same, but losing people, and not knowing where they’ve gone.”

Of the Holocaust survivors among the KJV narrators, some felt that their earlier experience enabled them to take this latest challenge in stride.[4] Others, like Miriam Waltzer, simply felt overwhelmed by the similarities of the two experiences as she described reliving the experience of devastation: “the city is in chaos, and you’ve gone through it once before, because when the war was over my hometown looked like the city now does. And people would leave little notes ‘we have gone here.’ Then you would go there. And that would be destroyed. You looked for people all over.  I still remember that.  Bridges destroyed. Things just sticking out, things smoldering. When I was a child. How often do you have to do this? How often do you have to see this?”

Conversely, narrator Carol Wise, of a similar age but raised in the U.S., turned to the bulwarks of history and community to ensure her return to the city: “I think the protection that I felt, the shield that I felt of being a Jew, gave me both the courage, perhaps, and the determination to come back and rebuild.”

These narrators offer an important take on the relationship of American Jews to the dynamics of Jewish history and to the nature of privilege in the American context. There is no doubt that racial, social, and economic advantage protected most New Orleans Jews from the most terrible depredations of the storm now being replayed in tenth anniversary documentaries. At the same time, during the difficult period – whether six days, three months, or longer than a year – that Jewish New Orleanians found themselves cut off from their pre-storm lives, they came closer to a different kind of privilege that also informs American Jewish life. Paradoxically, the strong communal ties and enduring sense of identity that emerged from a shared history of hardship and persecution served the New Orleans Jewish community well when confronted with a different sort of crisis.

It is often questioned whether the Jewish community can sustain its distinctive identity and traditions in a society where its members are embraced rather than rejected. Access to the benefits of our society (hard-won but facilitated by white skin privilege) have helped American Jews accumulate wealth, status, and security. Katrina offered a sobering reminder of the importance of other kinds of wealth – those embodied in a meaningful community and resonant history.

This necessarily limited glimpse of the myriad experiences and insights gathered by Katrina’s Jewish Voices indicates that those values and traditions are not yet outdated. Would that the power of community and memory were as obvious to us in times of plenty as they are in times of crisis. Ten years after the storm, it is encouraging to know that there are many Jewish New Orleanians – those who returned to the city together with others newly arrived – who are drawing upon their own varied forms of privilege to contribute to the next stage of New Orleans’ journey.

[1] All quotations from personal narratives are drawn from oral histories collected by Katrina’s Jewish Voices.
[2] See histories of Stephen Kupperman, Jackie Gotthard, Lainie Breaux, Miriam Waltzer, Irwin Lachoff, Sandy Levy, Carol Wise.
[3] See histories of Carol Smokler, Donna Sternberg, Roselle Ungar, Joel Brown, Andrew Busch, Rebecca Mark.
[4] History of Anne Levy.

Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Director of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan. From 2000 to 2008, she was Historian in Residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive.