Halo Av Echad L’kulanu?

Robert Hill, FSA – Executive Director, Temple Emanu-el, Providence, RI
Past President, NAASE

Have we not all one Father?” (Malachi 2:10)

As some of you know, New Orleans is my home town, and I have been deeply affected by the disaster that struck the Deep South on August 29. I was able to spend a week in New Orleans this past January, but now is the first time I have had a chance to see the situation in the nearby communities of southern Mississippi.

The Board of Governors of NAASE arrived in Gulfport on Tuesday, May 16, from all corners of the country, for a meeting and for two days of community service. There were 15 NAASE colleagues from cities as scattered as Seattle and Miami, Denver and Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati, Providence and Pittsburgh. We were joined by Rabbi Moshe Edelman of the central office of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

We were given a detailed orientation to the local situation by Steve Richer, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Biloxi, Lori Beth Sussman, immediate past president of the congregation, Raffaela Monchek of the local FEMA office, and our NAASE colleague Harry Silverman, executive director of the USCJ’s Southeast Region. Each of them tried to convey the magnitude of the disaster day and its immediate aftermath, the herculean effort since then to recover, and the staggering scope of work remaining to be done.

The hurricane experience on the Mississippi Coast was as devastating as the experience in New Orleans, but for different reasons. The eye of the hurricane passed right over Gulfport. In Mississippi a 30-foot storm surge smashed everything in its path, but the water receded within eight hours. In sub-sea-level New Orleans there was no city-wide wall of water; but once the levees were breached the water festered in the bowl of the city for many days before it could be pumped out. The ferocious winds were viciously destructive in both locations.

In Mississippi there were about 300 dead and another 300 missing. The property losses are estimated at about $125 billion, according to Steve Richer. Over 250 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places were destroyed. Many thousands of homes were leveled or rendered uninhabitable. The casino industry, an economic mainstay of the Gulf Coast, was wiped out. With property gone, property taxes are gone also, leaving local governments without revenue to use for recovery. (The casinos are now rebuilding, but so far only three of the pre-hurricane twelve are operating.) Many thousands of residents are jobless and homeless, and have lost everything. And hurricane season begins again on June 1.

On Wednesday morning we were ready for work at 7:15 A.M. We drove in our rented vans to the volunteer center operated by the Hands On Network. Their Gulf Coast operation was headquartered in a large no-frills metal building behind a Methodist Church (the same church, by the way, that had stepped up and welcomed Beth Israel Congregation after the synagogue was found to be unusable). From September 2005 to the present this impressive NGO has organized over 2,500 volunteers from all over the country to gut over 660 houses, treat 240 houses for mold remediation, remove over 2,500 trees, and help staff elementary schools, social/medical centers, and relief operations centers. Many of the volunteers are young adults, college-age but not necessarily college students, full of energy and talent.

Volunteers are not pre-assigned; they are sent to whatever tasks (appropriate to their skill set) are at the top of the list each day. We were assigned to a gutting job, reducing a damaged house to a shell so that it can be rebuilt. Our foreman was to be “Charlie,” a personable 22-year-old cabinetmaker from Mendocino, California who had simply gotten into his pickup truck after the hurricane, driven to Mississippi, and stayed there because, well, he could help.

We arrived at 709 Rich Avenue, about three blocks off the beach, unloaded the ladders, crowbars, hammers, wrecking bars, goggles, masks, and water supplies from Charlie’s truck, and set to work. A previous crew had already removed some of the interior sheetrock and insulation, but some of both remained, as did all the floors, which had not yet been touched. We spread out to the different rooms, and soon the pile of debris in front of the house began to grow impressively. We tore down sheetrock, pulled out insulation, pried up floorboards and floor tiles and underlayment, and wrestled appliances and heating vents to the street.

A pickup truck pulled up at the house in the late morning. The driver was Roger Elmore, the owner of the house. He apologized for not having been there sooner, but he had not known that there would be a crew at his house that day. Retired now from the Air Force, Roger had lived in that house for 30 years, and had raised his family there. He became very emotional as he told us what it had been like on the disaster day and the days following. He and his family had fled inland. They tried to get back to their house as soon as the storm abated, but the roads were impassable. He told of trying to save an elderly neighbor badly hurt, but of being unable to get near his own house. The areas of Gulfport and Biloxi closest to the Gulf of Mexico, which were the most devastated, were then quickly sealed off by the military.

Down at the port of Gulfport prior to the storm, many huge refrigerated trailers full of ten tons of raw chicken had been waiting for trans-shipment before the storm. The hurricane ripped the trailers open and covered a large part of Gulfport with their contents. When Roger and his son were allowed inside the cordoned zone a few days later, they found their house not only badly damaged by the wind and water, but also found their steps and yard covered in rotting raw chicken.

Roger left us before lunch, but said he’d be back. He wanted to show us something. He didn’t know much about Jews—he didn’t know there was a shul in his area—but he spoke very feelingly about how grateful he and all the local residents were for the generous help extended to everyone uniformly by faith groups of every kind. Before he left he asked Rabbi Edelman to “give us a prayer.” Rabbi Edelman didn’t hesitate. He recited Shehecheyanu, explaining to Roger that this “prayer,” normally recited at times of happiness, was paradoxically appropriate for this occasion as well, when fellow human beings are reminded of the fragility of life and our absolute responsibility for one another. Later in the afternoon, when he returned, Roger brought a photo of his wife and children, struggling to tell us that others besides him knew they were the beneficiaries of our work, and that they were very grateful. The gratitude was in its own way embarrassing to us, for we knew we were privileged to be able to perform this mitzvah, to be helping even for this very short time, and we knew how small our work was when measured against the vast amount remaining to be done. At the end of a long day we packed up and left, the gutting of one house out of many thousands completed.

We wanted very much to see the condition of Congregation Beth Israel in Biloxi, the only Conservative congregation in Mississippi. Steve Richer, the president of the shul and our principal local resource on this trip, took us there Thursday morning. The shul is a modest cinder-block building faced with brick, on a residential corner about two blocks off the beach. There are about seventy households on the membership roll. There is no rabbi—they have a student rabbi for the High Holy Days and occasionally at other times during the year. There are a handful of students in the religious school.

The congregation has been meeting in a Methodist Church since the hurricane. Steve and other leaders of the congregation brought a sefer torah back to the shul that morning, and we davened Shaharit around a folding table on the site of the sukkah, Judaism’s highly symbolic fragile dwelling. It was the first service on the temple property since August 29, and was very moving not only for me and my colleagues but for the temple leaders as well. The torah portion for the previous week was Emor, and we remembered about the provisions of the periodic Jubilee year— one of which is that every displaced person is entitled to return to his own home.

We davened outside because one cannot stay long inside the shul. But we did go in and see the extensive damage. One long time member oriented us to their tiny sanctuary: the ark donated by someone from Chicago, the hanging light fixtures made by his father in their garage, the two bima chairs formerly used for the King and Queen of Mardi Gras in Biloxi. As the congregation leaders described the shul’s history and the high level of involvement of everyone in so small a congregation, we could certainly feel their hope for the community’s recovery and growth. They have a major decision ahead regarding repairing the present building, building a new shul on the same site, or moving further inland.

It is difficult to put my feelings into words following an experience such as these three days. I am full of admiration for my Southern landsmen in both Louisiana and Mississippi who have endured so much with such grace. I am touched beyond telling by the outpouring of volunteer assistance from uncounted thousands from across the country and abroad. I am proud of my fellow executive directors and our association for their help in both states. I am stunned at the extent of what remains to be done.

…And I am grateful once more for the power of mitzvot to both clarify and transform our lives.

You may wish to read how simple but resolute actions inspire others… how caring has never gone out of style… and how a team of NAASE Executives and Friends made a difference in our time! Read the original article fro the Washington Jewish Week: Broadway to Biloxi.

Yasher koach to each of them and to all others less visible, who perfom the holy work of tikkun olam.