Like most of the New Orleans residents who came here a year ago to escape the ravages of Katrina, James Hardy and his wife Dr. Nancy Forrest Hardy thought they’d be here only a few days. When they packed their Ford Explorer outside the couple’s apartment in the French Quarter, they “literally took a couple changes of clothes, a couple bottles of water, some canned food,” James says.
Unlike most of the evacuees, they stayed here.
Nancy, a psychiatrist who grew up in Merrick, L.I., is now in the process of completing her residency at the Menninger Clinic, a mental health center affiliated with Baylor University’s medical school in Houston. James, a New Orleans native, commutes weekly to his old job as director of technology development at Louisiana State University. The 40ish couple live in a rented two-bedroom apartment, and will probably settle here permanently after Nancy’s residency ends.
“I want Isabella to go to a Jewish day school” in Houston, she says. Isabella is the Hardys’ 7-month-old daughter.
The Hardys say Houston Jewry, all strangers a year ago, welcomed them like members of the family.
Staying in the cramped apartment of a friend, they went shopping on one of their first days here. They happened to pass a synagogue, Congregation Brith Shalom. Friday night they attended services there. “The rabbi asked, ‘Is there anyone here from New Orleans?’” James says. “We sheepishly raised our hands.” After services they were surrounded by congregants. “What can we do to help? What do you need?” They were invited to the synagogue president’s home for Shabbat dinner, to the rabbi’s home for coffee.
“We went back the next morning,” James says. This time the rabbi introduced the visitors. After services, “50 or 60 people surrounded us.” One man, a wealthy financier, approached the couple. “You’re going to live with us,” he declared, inviting them to live in the empty guesthouse on his estate, for free, for as long as they needed. “It wasn’t the only offer we got,” James says.
That week they moved into the fully stocked, two-bedroom home. They stayed for a few months, until they found their current apartment.
During their year in Houston, individual members of the Jewish community have reached out to them, Jewish Family Service has offered assistance, Brith Shalom, which they have joined, has helped.
“We consider them our family,” James says of the congregation, wiping away a tear.
“I love this community,” says Nancy, who has done volunteer work at JFS.
Without the discreet support of Houston’s Jewish community, James says, “we probably would have been compelled to go back to New Orleans by default and resurrect our lives.” Many of their New Orleans friends who have returned there are “struggling” physically, financially, emotionally, he says. When Isabella is older, her parents will tell about the post-Katrina months, about “all the good people here in Houston.
“We’re blessed,” James says. “What we experienced is beshert.”