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Mitzvot in Mississippi

This account came from Steven J. Edelstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, on Sept. 12, about the scene in and around Jackson, Mississippi:

There is an old expression "G-d doesn't give you more than you can handle." I have seen that tested these past few days on a mission that Jeff Fladen, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Nashville, and I took to Jackson, Miss. on behalf of UJC.

Our assignment was to assess the needs of evacuees and distribute cash disbursements from the fund which UJC recently opened to assist with the
disaster, What we found was a Jewish community of some 200 families, which had literally adopted 75-80 evacuees.

Jackson itself had been hit by 70-mph winds. Power was still out in some parts of town. Branches were in piles on most streets. There was a 9 PM curfew. Temple Beth Israel was a beehive of activity. The valiant young Rabbi, Valerie Cohen, had assembled a list of the evacuees, most of who were living with family or friends in the Jackson area.  I overheard the administrative assistant directing a caller to an emergency food distribution point.  Evacuee children were being accommodated by the pre-school and religious school.  An evacuee Jewish educator was teaching bar and bat mitzvah children.  A "healing service" was being planned for Friday night.

The president of the Jewish Welfare Fund, Bert Rubinsky, had been housing up to 19 people in his own two homes (his new home and a house he had not yet sold), and had one dinner with 40 in attendance. His wife's grandmother had died in transit, and although she had had pre-paid funeral arrangements in New Orleans, was buried in Jackson.

Evacuees ranged in age from two to 92.

The stories were both horrific and heroic. Evacuees told of how they had fled three or four hurricanes and had thought that with three days' worth of clothing they could ride out this one. A few had homes which were dry, many had homes under three-six or more feet of water. Some were checking a Web site with aerial photographs of their neighborhoods.

Others had reports on property from friends or relatives who had been back to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast. And for many the news was bad. There was the usual Jewish humor in adverse circumstances. One man gave his New Orleans address as "under Lake Pontchartrain."  Some cried, but in the end all were resolute. They were thankful for their lives and in deepest sympathy with so many in the general community who were suffering.

There were those who were making arrangements to move elsewhere and others who were determined to return. There were stories of dogs evacuated with their families, with one pet dying enroute, one which could not be taken because room in the car was required for people, one which might have to now be put down because of old age.

There was a Jewish police lieutenant who was on five-day leave after working 24-7 in New Orleans.  His boots had cut into his leg and he was being treated with antibiotics to preclude infection and the effects of the polluted waters. He would be returning to New Orleans soon.

People were having difficulty accessing bank accounts; some had local health insurance that they were unsure applied in Jackson; others were concerned about missing mortgage payments. Two suggested help in locating reputable contractors.  One family reported on two different estimates for reconstruction on a portion of a home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One was for $6,800; the other estimate was $29,000.  The Better Business Bureau said the company with the lower estimate may not even exist.

Everyone -- everyone -- was either angry or highly frustrated at FEMA.
Calls to the 800 number had been disconnected; people were kicked out of the FEMA Web site or spent time logging information only to see their time expired.  FEMA had not opened an office in Jackson.

Valerie Cohen's husband, Jonathan "JC" Cohen, runs the Henry S. Jacobs
camp in Utica, MS, about 45 minutes away. We went there to interview
about 15 of the evacuees who were staying at the camp. JC was in the process of opening a warehouse for distribution of food and medical supplies and was making plans to offer significant services out of the camp. 

Those at the camp had formed their own society and were supporting each other. One woman was talking about putting out a camp newsletter; another was conducting yoga classes. Ironically, a physician who is a world-class expert on disaster assistance was himself an evacuee at the camp, but was in Washington for consultation the day we were there.

Everyone regardless of station took our cash, because everyone was dislocated. I am convinced that our assurances that this helped other Jews perform a mitzvah gave them needed support.

Let me close with something that was related to us, but not heard directly. A friend of one of the evacuees was a Holocaust survivor from New Orleans, who said that when she fled Europe she said good-bye to friends she would never see again.  When she fled New Orleans, her prayer was that she would see her friends reunited in the near future. I can not say enough about the work with Rabbi Cohen, her husband Jonathan, Bert Rubinsky and others are doing to help the evacuees. I hope the entire American Jewish community uses this as a model for how we can all be of assistance in these trying times.