Passover on the Gulf Coast
Saturday, April 8, 2006
As residents of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast prepare for Passover, which celebrates the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt, it is as if they have lived through an epic of their own.
"You're talking about Exodus, where you're going from something terrible, being under the rule of Pharaoh, toward freedom," said Lori Beth Susman, a board member of a conservative synagogue in Biloxi, Miss. "For many of us, the last seven months have been that kind of journey."
Congregations along the Gulf Coast find themselves at different places on that journey after August's arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Their Passover plans reveal the many ways Katrina continues to affect their religious lives, from damaging their synagogues to still scattering once-close members of congregations.
Traditionally, Passover is celebrated with a Seder dinner, at which the story of the Exodus is told. Families often have a first-night Seder at home, and many synagogues hold a second-night Seder. This year, the holiday begins at sundown Wednesday and lasts eight days for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and seven days for Reform Jews.
Susman's congregation, Beth Israel, is unable to hold services or a traditional Seder because of extensive wind damage to its facilities. Instead, the congregation will have its annual Seder at a local Methodist church, which also hosts Sabbath services in a fellowship hall.
One of the most heavily damaged synagogues in the region, a New Orleans Orthodox congregation also called Beth Israel, has a wrecked building and displaced members. The synagogue, which is near the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee, was filled with 10 feet of water in the sanctuary. Its membership is down about 30 percent from the pre-Katrina figure of 165 families, some of whom lived close enough to walk to services before they lost their homes.
"Everything was destroyed," said Eddie Gothard, past president of the congregation. "Every bench, every book, seven Torahs, every file cabinet, every record."
The damaged Torahs were buried in a Jewish cemetery March 19. (Out of respect, damaged Torahs are buried, not thrown away.) At the same ceremony, two new Torahs, donated by out-of-state synagogues, were dedicated.
"Torahs don't die," Gothard said. "What the Torah really is -- the concepts, the precepts, the history of our people, the laws we have to follow -- that's not lost at all. What's still here is our congregation and our dedication to being an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans."
As a sign of that commitment, Beth Israel holds Sabbath services about every three weeks in a room at a nearby Reform synagogue, officiated by rabbis and Yeshiva students sent by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
There will be no synagogue-based Passover celebrations this year, but Gothard and others will have Seders at home.
"There is too much that is not normal, [such as] driving down the street and seeing the piles of trash and the FEMA trailers in front yards," he said. "We would like to see something that reminds us of normal. That's what I think Passover represents. When you get back to your traditions, you realize at some point you're getting over this."