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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

Reflections on a Visit to New Orleans

By Bill Blumstein
Imagine the impact on your life if the Kensico Dam broke and water from the reservoir pored out of the breach flooding an area from the dam to Battery Park in NYC, from the banks of the Hudson to the communities along Long Island Sound.

Try to envision the condition of the first floor of your home after it was under several feet of water for several weeks during the heat of the summer. Picture yourself returning to your home after an emergency evacuation and finding your home off its foundation, vandalized, filled with mold or possibly with standing but without a roof and with most of the walls collapsing. Think of driving around town and seeing all the local merchants, banks supermarkets, gas stations which are so much a part of your life either destroyed by flooding, vandalism or wind blown debris. This is the situation I saw during my visit to New Orleans on April 2 to 5 as part of a mission jointly sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

Seven and a half months after the disaster, signs of recovery are evident in a few places. These are primarily in areas which had the least damage or in areas where the local leadership took control and organized the community. Debris has been cleaned up from

roadways, shopping center parking lots and many yards. There are neighborhoods where FEMA trailers sit in the front yard as people start to repair their homes. However most of

the area sits waiting for the government to determine if homes can be rebuilt on their foundations or if a new elevation standard will be required. Repairs to the levees and canals are proceeding slowly and may not be completed when hurricane season arrives in less than two months.

Often overlooked is the emotional impact of the storm and subsequent destruction. Every community, every part of the population has been decimated. Entire communities which once were able to help and support other communities are now the recipients of needed assistance. As one rabbi said, he is accustomed to going on missions to help others; he never imaged being the beneficiary of missions offering support and assistance. In most disasters there is a group of victims and a community of care givers offering assistance. In New Orleans, everyone, is a victim, there are no caregivers.

The four Reform congregations are physically in good shape. The damage to their buildings was not extensive and has been repaired. However, the impact on their membership is substantial and continues to be felt. Most lay and all professional leaders have returned from their evacuation sites. Members are slowly returning but a significant part of their membership has decided not to return. Slowly the Jewish community is restoring itself with renewed interest in building strong Jewish communities and rebuilding New Orleans.

The Jewish and non Jewish communities we visited are overwhelmed by the URJ’s ability to organize projects such as Jacob’s ladder and the significant financial support from Katrina Relief and the SOS (Save Our Synagogues) Funds. The Reform Movement continues to be the only religious organization providing extensive relief to a diverse group of local organizations in all parts of the city.

The people we met have a great attitude, they are not bitter and want to rebuild their lives in New Orleans and in so doing want to rebuild New Orleans. The community leaders we met with talk of addressing many of the problems which existed prior to the storm as part of the rebuilding process. Their aspiration is to rebuild a better, probably smaller New Orleans

You can help rebuild New Orleans by:

Contacting your Senator and Congressperson, ask them to visit the area and work towards providing adequate resources to rebuild the city and to help people rebuild their lives.

Contact government officials and urge them to rebuild the levees to withstand a cat 5 storm and to make the decisions required to permit people to build their homes.

Send contributions to the URJ SOS Fund, 633 Third Ave, NY NY 10017 or other organizations and direct the funds to New Orleans relief efforts.

Join the URJ’s Mitzvah Corp trip this July. Information is from the Commission on Social Action, 212.650.4160 or www.urj.org/socialaction.

Visit the URJ website http://urj.org/relief/ for opportunities to connect with individuals and communities.

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