In a New Orleans graveside ceremony this past Sunday (March 19), Rabbi Mayer Waxman, Orthodox Union Director of Synagogue Services, participated in the burial of seven Torah scrolls belonging to Beth Israel Congregation that were destroyed, along with the synagogue itself, during Hurricane Katrina.
The OU has been working with the RCA and Yeshiva University on rebuilding the Orthodox community in New Orleans and will continue to do so to meet all of the challenges facing Beth Israel Congregation and its families following Hurricane Katrina.
The graveside ceremony was led by Edward Gothard, Beth Israel Rebuilding Committee Chairman, who has been in the forefront of the post-Katrina efforts to reestablish the synagogue. In his remarks, he thanked the OU for the role it played in helping the synagogue restore its presence, beginning with the High Holy Days.
Mr. Gothard declared, “Since the hurricane, Beth Israel has been in close contact with the Orthodox Union, and without the OU’s help, Beth Israel would not exist today. I do not mean simply that they were very helpful and made our job easier. I mean that without the OU, Beth Israel would not exist today.”
“When we inquired if they could help us find someone to read the Torah for Yom Kippur,” he explained, “they sent us a rabbi, two Yeshiva University students, a Torah, and fifty High Holiday prayer books — all on 48 hours notice. They have had two staff rabbis here on four different occasions to help us conduct services, as well as five different students; sent 50 brand new ArtScroll prayer books for Shabbat and daily usage; and have worked with our leadership very closely in planning the short term and long term vision of the shul.”
Rabbi Waxman provided words of inspiration at the burial service for the Torah scrolls, declaring, “There are several times, burial being one of them, in which a Jew is compared to a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) 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 remain strong.”
“When we are burying sifrei Torah, in no way does it mean that we should forget the contents,” Rabbi Waxman said. “It would be tragic if, in fact, we forgot our Torah. But it is good that we are able to dispose properly and honorably of these receptacles of the Torah. Unfortunately, Beth Israel has been destroyed. The Sifrei Torah were ruined and must be buried. But by this action we have the opportunity to go on. We have the opportunity and the necessity to continue in the Torah lifestyle; to plant these physical seeds of Torah and to tend to them by reestablishing places of Torah-true prayer; and to dedicate time each day to learn Torah and to perform Torah precepts. The old adage tells us that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. In that vein, today’s solemn event is an opportunity — a challenge — but one who’s roots are embedded in time immemorial and whose rewards are divine.”
At the ceremony, a plaque was awarded to the secretary of Beth Israel, Rebecca Heggelund, a non-Jewish woman who was the first to receive the Torah scrolls after they were rescued. At the request of synagogue leaders, she buried them in her backyard until they were able to be moved for proper internment.
The Torah scrolls were then buried next to the long-serving gabbai of Beth Israel, Meyer Lachoff, who died prior to the hurricane and wasn’t able to be buried until a few weeks later, due to the devastation.
Following the service, participants visited the burial plot of 3,000 seforim (Jewish books) destroyed during the hurricane.
Mr. Gothard then announced the receipt of two Torah scrolls. One was donated from the OU synagogue Brith Shalom Beth Israel Congregation in Charleston, SC, and the other from Congregation Shaare Zedek Sons of Abraham in Providence, RI. Upon hearing the good news, people danced in the street with joy.