When Noah stepped foot off the Ark there was no welcoming committee, no volunteers to help him rebuild his life. He was literally standing alone facing the challenge of a world devastated by water. With faith as his hammer, and hope as his nails, he stepped up to the challenge and literally started to rebuild the world.
Repeatedly throughout our history, Jews have had to start over and pick up the pieces.
In Europe we became quite good at it. When towns were built of wood, and the natives were not friendly, fires were a frequent occurrence. Major learning centers like Telz and Volozhin became accustomed to arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of devastation and coming back stronger and more resilient.
August 29th, 2007 marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees which were meant to protect the city from flooding. Over the past two years, New Orleans has recovered some of its population and economy. Volunteers from all over the U.S. came to help with the clean-up operation and some even stayed on. Despite the departure of 3,500 Jews from New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the community has begun to attract new members, including many young families, and two new synagogue Rabbis who took up their posts this summer. A choice of nine synagogues, two Jewish day schools, and two Jewish Community Centers, combined with a broad range of job opportunities and a helpful Newcomer's Incentives Program (initiated by the Jewish Federation of New Orleans) are attracting young professionals to move to the South's once-vibrant and colorful city.
"We see a chance to make a difference here, and to rebuild the community in our image."
"We see a chance to make a difference here, and to rebuild the community in our image," says Nathan Rothstein, a recent arrival who is already involved in the Young Urban Recovery Professional's project. "It is exciting to be part of a community which wants to improve facilities for every age group and even has the funding to do so."
Those who weathered the storm and stayed in New Orleans have rebuilt their lives, homes and businesses. They are keen to welcome young people who want to join and strengthen their community of survivors. "We have all learned a great deal about ourselves and what we can achieve," says congregational Rabbi Loewy, who has served this community for two decades and sees his role as someone to strengthen the Jewish spirit and help renew the community in the aftermath of the Hurricane. "We have witnessed great acts of self-sacrifice and an outpouring of kindness. Being on the receiving end when we are down inspires us to give back to other people once we are back on our feet again, and this is the new spirit of New Orleans. We are revitalized as never before."
Michael Weil, Executive Director of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, sees a silver lining to the destructive storm cloud in that it has brought the community together.
Different synagogues are pooling their resources to bring in guest speakers, and community-wide planning involves members of every organization in the city. The ability to work in harmony and plan together is truly a blessing. There is a new spirit in the community - we are stronger and more united. Attendance at events and services is high, and greater levels of involvement and engagement have been noticed. Cooperation and collaboration have become the buzzwords. Today we are seeing an influx of new Jewish community members, who arrive daily in New Orleans because they believe they are needed and can help. While the initial challenges of living here drove some to seek an easier life elsewhere, we are now attracting those who are thirsting for an intense drought of Tikkun Olam.
Noah started with a clean slate and was given the chance to rebuild a better society. Each year, as we approach Rosh Hashana, we have the same opportunity to start again, turning the page to a clean sheet, and learning from what has been swept away by time or tide. As New Orleans' Jewish community commits itself to a better 5768, they stand together in rebuilt synagogues, alongside new neighbors as well as old friends, in a spirit of unity and determination. After the flood, Noah saw the first rainbow. When light shines through rain, we are reminded that beauty is sometimes revealed through hardship, and that when the storm has cleared, there are opportunities to involve ourselves in holy work.