Hidden Light of Purim Revealed in New Orleans when Long Island NCSY Comes to Town

08 Mar 2007


After spending Purim in New Orleans on a Friday Night Lights program for the non-observant, and accompanied by 27 HAFTR students, Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, Director of Long Island NCSY, reflects on the experience:

Tough times don’t last, tough people do.

It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes up a shul. Many people, when asked such a question, will remark it is the walls, the acoustics, perhaps the sifrei kodesh (the prayer books and Torah scrolls).

This Shushan Purim, 33 Long Island NCSYers recited Tehillim (Psalms) in the destroyed Orthodox Union member congregation, the Beth Israel Synagogue in New Orleans; we sang songs and we danced. Although we were filled with so many different emotions and superficially there was spirit, we felt empty inside.

Long Island NCSY had spent the last four days in New Orleans spreading Purim ruach and Shabbat spirit throughout the New Orleans Jewish community. In fact, the previous afternoon we participated in a Megilla reading with ten New Orleans teens joining us who had never heard the Megilla read in its entirety before.

So why did we feel so empty? We sang, we danced and stomped our feet and clapped our hands, but the sound that we had become accustomed to wasn’t there. We stomped on concrete floors — the original wood was destroyed by Katrina — we sang, but the sound died because all of the walls have been broken and shattered. We made a circle in the middle of the sanctuary where the bima would normally be, but the bima was tilted on its side on top of benches in the women’s section. We recited Tehillim facing east towards the Aron (Ark) but there were only shards of curtains to remind us of the destroyed Torah Scrolls.

We felt empty because there was nothing we could do to fill the obvious void around us.

That was until the President of the shul announced that Katrina was “only a flood; it was not anti-Semitism, it was not assimilation.”

Those words blew all of us away. Jackie Gothard, the President of Beth Israel, went on to explain that a shul is not the Torahs, the siddurim, the bima or even the walls and the floors. Although all of those items are found in a synagogue, the shul is made up of the people that are dedicated to the continuity of Judaism.

Our 27 HAFTR students who participated in this trip were absolutely shocked by this statement, but felt vindicated in how they spent their weekend. They were challenged by Mrs. Gothard as to whether they had made a difference during their short experience. Did gutting five homes in the Lower Ninth Ward really change the immense and total destruction that the city is still reeling from? Is singing and dancing on one Purim going to bring back the fifty percent of the community which hasn’t returned? Are they going to maintain the relationships with the unaffiliated teens they met throughout the weekend?

Our teens were determined to answer each and every question — “YES.”

They delivered more than 250 Shaloch Manot (gift packages) on Purim day; ran the Purim carnival at the community day school; and became the life of the party at all three shuls they attended over the five days in New Orleans.

Perhaps most importantly, they gutted homes, not because they made a sizable dent in the devastation — I believe that they did make a difference — but because they were able to, if only for a few minutes, remove all of the excess material and find the foundation. Only after we ripped up the tiles, removed the insulation, took out all of the furniture and appliances, were we able to judge how strong the foundation truly was. Only after seeing the strength of the foundation, were we able to determine if the house would be demolished or remodeled.

The moment of truth was intense and very profound for the week of Purim. We were able to remove the mask of frivolity and to locate the real substance. As much as we gave to the New Orleans community, they gave back to us.

Our NCSYers returned, exhausted, but with a renewed dedication to Tikkun Olam (repairing of the world) and Kiruv (outreach), and for that we can’t thank the New Orleans community enough. After all it was “only a flood.”

If you are interested in participating in a Long Island NCSY Friday Night Lights program or to sponsor future initiatives, please contact Rabbi Lightstone Rabbiaryeh@lincsy.com, 516-569-6279.