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UJC Visits Hurricane Katrina Communities, Part I
September 11, 2005

Baton Rouge, LA., Sept. 9-11:

UJC’s Howard Feinberg joined me and provided expert leadership to both the professional and lay leaders with whom we met to assist in planning for the immediate and future needs of the Baton Rouge and New Orleans community there.

The federation and the synagogue community are working so hard to address the needs of their new guests and community members. It appears that some 1,500 Jews from New Orleans are now in Baton Rouge, more than doubling their community of 1,000. Given that Baton Rouge is a small community and has only a part-time executive, housed in one of two synagogue offices, the challenge at this moment has fallen squarely on the shoulders of its volunteer community.

And what a community it is. If you have ever been in the South you know what a special place it is. The warmth, genuine sense of caring and community are palpable. On our arrival, we were greeted at the Baton Rouge airport by Sheila Horowitz, just one of dozens who have opened their homes and hearts to a constant wave of volunteers who arrive to help but have no place to stay. Sheila met us with a big sign and a huge welcoming smile. It was her third trip to the airport that day -- a trip that used to take 15 minutes and now can stretch to more than two hours. Things have dramatically changed for Sheila and the entire Baton Rouge community.

Shelia and Murray Horowitz are long-time residents of Baton Rouge; Murray is a native, a pawn broker who inherited the family business from his father and whose generosity is well documented here. Sheila came to Baton Rouge from Kansas City some 34 years ago when she and Murray married. She is a travel agent. Their grown sons live in New York and Tokyo, acting on what Sheila said was her duty to “give them wings to fly.”

The Horowitz home became our home for two very special nights. We replaced UJC’s Barry Swartz, Bert Goldberg, of the Association of Jewish and Family Children’s Agencies, as well as a couple from New Orleans who’d spent several nights during the first days following Hurricane Katrina and then with Sheila’s help, were put on a flight to family elsewhere in the country. We shared space with Sandy Adland and Jackie Balyeat, two women from Indianapolis, who go so fed up watching this unfolding tragedy on TV, they packed up their car, left their school-age children with their husbands and drove to Baton Rouge to “do something.” Sandy, a professional home-care provider with roots in New Orleans and Jackie, an accountant, had no specific disaster relief skills, but knew that they could help. For a week, housed and cared for by the Horowitzs, who plied all with Cajun cooking, and Louisiana café-au-lait, these two women, worked around the clock helping members of the displaced New Orleans community find housing, put them on “angel flights” to families in places far and wide, got them medicine, arranged contacts with friends and families, and made sure that they had all the basics of everyday life to function.

Our arrival on Friday allowed us to participate in the first Baton Rouge Jewish community/New Orleans evacuee community Shabbat, at Beth Shalom Synagogue. The sanctuary was expanded into the social hall to accommodate the many New Orleans families. As people arrived, the sanctuary took on an atmosphere of a family reunion, as New Orleans residents found and embraced one another. Rabbi Stanton Zamek had a difficult time quieting the swelled ranks of his congregation to welcome this special Shabbat. In attendance was the newly elected African -American Mayor of Baton Rouge and the head of the local NAACP. Special guest for the evening, Rabbi David Saperstein, presented the community with a first donation and also made a gift to the African-American community that has suffered so much these past two weeks.

We spent the rest of our time in Baton Rouge meeting with leadership of the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Jewish federations, addressing the challenges ahead. We met in the home of a Baton Rouge federation founding family, Donna and Hans Sternberg. Joining the meeting were Donna, her son, Erich, who is now Baton Rouge federation president; Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans; Sandy Levy, executive director of the New Orleans Jewish Foundation, and Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans Jewish federation, who swam out of his house and eventually caught a ride to Baton Rouge.

While the two Baton Rouge synagogues are working closely with the federation leaders in assisting Jewish evacuees and those from the general community, with B’nai Israel acting as a shelter for some 25 people, and Beth Shalom as the central placement, distribution and coordination and medical treatment center, it was clear that a more sustainable plan was needed. Our discussions led to the outline of a six-month action plan and proposed allocation, which will be reviewed, to allow Baton Rouge and the displaced members of New Orleans Jewish community who are here to get the help they need most immediately -- housing assistance, case-work management, job placement, educational guidance, psychological counseling, and breaking through the myriad issues of putting life back together again, such as resolving insurance claims, recreating documentation lost in the flooding and securing aid through FEMA.

The meeting was extraordinary not just for how quickly the people around the kitchen table in Donna’s home arrived at a working plan, but for the ever present awareness that several of the people around that table could not go home -- that they were talking about themselves as well as thousands of others. Talk moved from how to secure adequate office space for this temporary collaborative community federation office to whether any of them needed extra pillows for the nights ahead. This meeting was not about making decisions to help unknown needy in their home communities -- it was also about each of them: their pain, their fears, their passionate need to get things moving and their pluck and good humor in the midst of all this. Everyone welled up with tears as we talked about what to do for the High Holy Days, what would be needed for the evacuees, and for their college-age children, who will be away and feeling especially vulnerable. Would we be able to match the students with host families, in addition to Hillel services, asked one mother at the table.

We left Baton Rouge Sunday morning, heading to Houston, where even more stories of our remarkable community of kindness await us. What we left with was a new appreciation for the importance of our Jewish community, especially in those smaller places where resources may be limited but human kindness and compassion are limitless. Baton Rouge may be one of our smallest federations but its heart is huge. I know we have a strong branch of the family there. Let’s stay with them and what they are doing.