When New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005, Congregation Beth Israel of New Orleans, an Orthodox Union synagogue, captured worldwide attention when a photo of Torah scrolls being carried from the synagogue’s wreckage by a dedicated volunteer rescue worker was transmitted across the world. Jewish life has begun to revive in New Orleans and into this reemerging community last year appeared Rabbi Uri Topolosky, hired to take over as spiritual leader of a synagogue that still did not have a building to call its own.
The congregation currently rents a wing in a Reform temple in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, but is working on a campaign to build a new home for the congregation.
Rabbi Topolosky and synagogue lay leaders are well aware that as Congregation Beth Israel rebuilds, it will have the full support of the OU, just as it did in the weeks and months that followed the hurricane.
At the Orthodox Union’s Annual Dinner held in April, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU Executive Vice President, presented Rabbi Topolosky with a check for $235,000 for Beth Israel’s building campaign. Rabbi Topolosky declared, “The check received at the dinner was truly a major boon for us in our efforts to build a new home for our congregation.”
Immediately following Katrina, the OU was one of the organizations that sent help to the synagogue and to the New Orleans Jewish community. Congregation Beth Israel, established over 100 years ago, lost seven Torah scrolls and thousands of holy books in the wake of the hurricane. In October, when Yom Kippur was rapidly approaching and Beth Israel had no materials or home for services, its acting president, Edward Gothard, contacted the OU. In just a couple of days, the OU’s Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Community and Synagogue Services sent a Torah scroll and volunteers from the OU and Yeshiva University to lead the services. The team also bought food for the pre- and post-fast meals. The services were held at the Comfort Inn Suites near New Orleans International Airport, but would have been impossible without the help provided by the OU.
In 2006, the OU sent Rabbi Mayer Waxman, then the Director of Synagogue Services, to participate in the burial of the seven Torah scrolls that were destroyed by the storm. Rabbi Waxman provided words of inspiration at the burial service, declaring, “There are several times, burial being one of them, in which a Jew is compared to a Sefer Torah and a Sefer Torah is compared to a Jew. As we bury these Sifrei Torah, it is crucial that we do not bury the principles of Torah with them. It is important that the vibrancy of Torah and of the New Orleans Jewish community remains strong.”
It was into this atmosphere that Rabbi Topolosky arrived in 2007 to assume the position of rabbi of the congregation. He had previously received semicha (rabbinical ordination) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary in Manhattan, NY. Though becoming established as a rabbi in a congregation with no building or office might seem daunting to some, Rabbi Uri, as he is known in the community, said it was part of the attraction. Along with his wife Dahlia and their two children, Rabbi Topolosky has lent his trademark optimism and good humor to the congregation. He is looking forward to launching the actual building campaign by this year’s High Holidays, and to a brand-new building for the shul in the next few years.
Myron Goldberg, Congregation Beth Israel’s president, said, “After the hurricane and the loss of our synagogue, as well as personal losses to both homes and business, our remaining membership held together especially through the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Uri – to not only help us rebuild our synagogue but our lives as well. We look forward to future assistance from the OU and greatly appreciate its past involvement in our rebuilding efforts.”
Rabbi Topolosky said that many members of the Jewish community had left New Orleans in the wake of the hurricane, relocating to nearby communities such as Memphis, Atlanta, Houston; a large percentage, he said, went further away. Significant portions of the funds from the hurricane relief campaign that the OU, along with Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) raised, went towards the schools in Memphis and Houston that absorbed the newly arrived students from New Orleans. Many of the people who moved from New Orleans to these communities have remained there, but that does not mean that there is no Jewish life left in New Orleans.
“New Orleans lost a third of the Jewish community after Katrina,” said Rabbi Topolosky. “The community was left with about 6,000 Jews, and with the 1,000 newcomers we’ve attracted in the years since the hurricane, we are now holding steady.”
As for the shul, there are about 80 member families and 80 associate families (meaning they belong to other synagogues, as well). Rabbi Topolosky said that many of New Orleans’s established families have seen their children, who had moved away and gotten married, return to the community, spurred on by the wave of idealism and pioneering opportunities that now exist in the area. “Young people want to come and help rebuild the community,” said Rabbi Topolosky. “Ironically, whereas the children of New Orleans’s core families often moved away, Hurricane Katrina has reversed that trend and brought many of them back here.”
New Orleans does possess the typical resources found in larger Jewish communities: there is a mikveh (ritual bath), with another one for New Orleans’s suburban communities now being built; two kosher restaurants and plans in progress for a kosher bakery and cafe; a kosher market; and construction of a kosher eruv (a boundary permitting carrying on the Sabbath) currently underway.
Rabbi Topolosky recently represented New Orleans at the OU’s Emerging Communities Showcase, held in New York, which was designed to provide residents of the Metropolitan area with options for smaller, close-knit Jewish communities that are more affordable than the typical New York neighborhood. “Most people still think New Orleans is under water, so it was definitely a positive thing for Beth Israel to show that there’s a serious program in place to help rebuild the Jewish community.”
All in all, the OU, YU, and RCA have raised nearly $1 million for post-Katrina relief efforts. But perhaps it is equally important for the Jewish community of New Orleans to know that it is never from the thoughts of the Orthodox Union.