Seven years after Hurricane Katrina toppled a nearby floodwall and drowned their Lakeview synagogue, and after a seven-year journey praying in hotel meeting rooms, then in rooms borrowed and rented from another congregation, the 100 or so families of Congregation Beth Israel will finally arrive home this weekend.
They’ll move into their new synagogue in Metairie at midmorning Sunday with a short parade, behind a New Orleans brass band, as clergy and friends ceremonially carry their five sacred Torahs to their home in Beth Israel’s new ark.
There’s a passage from Hebrew Scripture from the Song of Solomon carved into the ark’s face: “Mighty waters cannot extinguish our love.”
“Every milestone we reach is worth celebrating, not only by that community, but the city as a whole,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who came to the shaken Beth Israel congregation community two years after the storm and helped it revive itself.
The new synagogue stands in the 4000 block of West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie, next door to Congregation Gates of Prayer, which first opened its doors to homeless Beth Israel in 2006, then sold it a piece of its land.
Congregation Gates of Prayer, led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, is in the Reform Jewish tradition, the movement that seeks to preserve the core of Jewish identity while adapting broadly to modern culture. By contrast, Beth Israel’s Modern Orthodox Judaism conspicuously declares its Jewish identity by adhering to ancient Scriptural mandates like dietary laws and rules for conduct on the Sabbath.
In many parts of the country, there is a chill between the two branches of the family. But in New Orleans, the procession into Beth Israel will start next door, at Gates of Prayer.
But, “from the beginning, Rabbi Loewy stressed to us that in his opinion it was important that the complete Jewish community be represented in New Orleans, and that included a Modern Orthodox congregation like us,” said Eddie Gothard, a Metairie lawyer and the Beth Israel congregation’s president.
In fact, Loewy will be among those carrying a Torah into the new building, Gothard said.
Beth Israel’s permanent settling-in means that a 1.5-mile stretch of West Esplanade between Causeway and Clearview boulevards is now home to four Jewish congregations, as well as the Jewish Community Center of Metairie.
The ruined synagogue stood vacant until earlier this year, when Dr. Charles Murphy, a Kenner orthopedic surgeon, bought it for use as medical offices and a therapy center. The City Council on Thursday signed off on zoning changes permitting that use.
The Lakeview synagogue was so badly damaged that only a few precious artifacts were salvageable. The new synagogue’s bimah, from which the Torah is read, comes from Lakeview by way of Beth Israel’s original synagogue, which opened in 1904 on Carondelet Street in New Orleans, Gothard said.
Two menorahs and a hanukkia, a ritual Hanukkah menorah, survive. So do a stained-glass window and a wooden plaque honoring pioneer donor families from Carondelet Street. The Metairie synagogue contains the ner tamid, the eternal light that burned in front of the ark in Lakeview, Topolosky said.
A patio behind the synagogue is embedded with bricks bearing the names of Jewish agencies and congregations across the United States and Canada that helped Beth Israel through its wanderings.
This weekend will be a long way from Yom Kippur of 2005, which fell just weeks after Katrina, Gothard said.
Yearning for normalcy in a world turned upside down, New Orleans’ Orthodox Jews that year gathered in a donated meeting room at the Comfort Suites hotel in Kenner. Orange Home Depot buckets anchored posts from which bedsheets were strung, dividing men from women in traditional worship.
Beth Israel’s rabbi did not return to New Orleans. And if, in those weeks, there were serious discussions among the congregation’s leadership about disbanding, its then-president, Jackie Gothard, Eddie’s mother, would not entertain them in her presence, Eddie Gothard said.
So the rebuilding journey began.
Seven years later, Gothard said he has come to appreciate its hard-won lessons.
“We know that we have the spirit and the wherewithal to get through the most difficult circumstances,” he said.
“And we have a greater appreciation for the people in our community, who are more important than any building.”
And more – that stability, normalcy, routine might seem boring and unsatisfactory, but are actually blessings, considering the alternatives.
Using the Yiddish term for Sabbath, Gothard said that given Beth Israel’s past seven years, “we know now that when we go from Shabbos to Shabbos with the same people in the same old place – we know that’s a deeply good thing.
“A deeply good thing.”