Houston — Ten years ago next week, with Hurricane Katrina barreling toward them, several thousand Jews from New Orleans set out on I-10 to escape the storm. They headed west, passing Baton Rouge, then Lafayette, in the heart of the Louisiana bayou, then Lake Charles, and on across the Texas line through Beaumont and the lyrically named Mont Belvieu.
They were headed for higher ground, and sanctuary, in Houston. The ribbon of highway was a lifeline, 350 miles from ruin to rescue.
Jewish Houston, home to about 40,000 generous souls, opened its doors to the many Jews fleeing New Orleans. It was the start of a process that irrevocably changed both communities over these 10 years, and bound them in a special way, even as New Orleans — both the Jewish community and the wider city — has rebounded in the last decade.
Josh Pershell was 8 years old when his family pulled onto I-10 bound for Houston. Their house, they would later learn, was “completely flooded.” Houston would now be home. “Everyone was very welcoming and supportive,” Pershell, now 18, told The Jewish Week in a recent interview. “They did their best to get us back on our feet.”
After Katrina, Houston Jewry offered housing and office space, moral support and counseling, free synagogue membership and day school enrollment, money and prayer books and other religious supplies for the New Orleans evacuees, several hundred of whom, according to estimates, ended up making Houston their home.
And then, nearly 10 years later, the high water came to Houston, on Memorial Day 2015 — 11 inches of rain in a matter of a few hours, 2,000 buildings destroyed, some of the worst flooding in the city’s history. The damage was heavy in the heart of Houston’s Jewish neighborhood, Meyerland, along Brays Bayou, home to many of its institutions.
The Jews of New Orleans — current and former ones — were among the first to reach out to the Texas city that had given them refuge. For survivors of Katrina, it was déjà vu — images from Houston of flooded buildings, of people wading in waist-deep water, of stranded individuals being rescued by rowboat.
Returning the favor done to him, Josh Pershell, a recent graduate of Houston’s Beren Academy, a Jewish day school, volunteered to help flood-battered families after the Memorial Day deluge. Along with other volunteers, he carried furniture and other ruined items out of homes, and helped people pack their intact belongings.
“I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do, and the rest of my school and my friends were doing it also,” Pershell, now 18, said. “The [Jewish] community as a whole supported all of us” after Katrina.
That the Jews of New Orleans were in a position to have lent a hand after the Houston flooding is an indication of how far the community has come since Katrina hit. In the wake of the Category 5 hurricane, the Jewish population of New Orleans plummeted by more than a third, from 9,500 to 6,000. Today, it’s 10,300. (Buoyed by a network of strengthened levees and wetlands, the city as a whole, which initially lost about 40 percent of its population of nearly 500,000, has grown to 384,000 as of March; yet Louisiana has more young people not in school or working than any state in the nation, a direct result, researchers say, of Katrina.) The local Jewish federation’s annual fundraising campaign, which took a small hit in the wake of the hurricane, has nearly reached the pre-2005 figure $2.8 million; several Jewish institutions, which suffered heavy damage in the waters of Katrina, are located in new buildings.
“Ten years later we’re now stronger than we were before the storm,” said Bradley Bain, president of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue that moved into a new building two years ago, after being hosted for several years at a New Orleans Reform temple, Congregation Gates of Prayer in the suburb of Metairie.
“We’re very much a better place,” said Michael Weil, executive director of New Orleans’ Jewish federation, who helped coordinate the community-wide recovery effort, which included a campaign to attract new residents. In a telephone interview, he said Jewish New Orleans has moved beyond its initial recovery and rebuilding stages. “We’re actually rejuvenating. It’s a different world now. The community feels good about itself.”
The wider city “has become an incubator for entrepreneurship,” especially in the arts and the restaurant business, Weil said. “The Jewish community has been at the forefront of that.”
The people who left were mostly young families, who needed schools for their children; and senior citizens, who lost their homes, and lacked the resources or strength to rebuild. The people who have come are mostly young professionals, many of them single. “The new Jewish New Orleans is actually younger, in age profile, than before,” Brandeis history professor Jonathan Sarna said.
The Jewish federation’s high-visibility newcomers program, which offered a variety of financial incentives to people who moved to New Orleans, did not play a crucial role in their decision, Weil said. Instead, the city itself, its image as a vibrant place, has served as the main draw. The local economy is healthy, jobs are available. And housing, while not inexpensive, is affordable. “It’s a lot cheaper than New York City, Washington or places like that,” he said.
Weil pointed to several signs of new Jewish life in New Orleans: a Moishe House, an expanded Limmud educational program, a new Hillel House and Chabad Center at Tulane University, a new Chabad day school, an expanded JCC Uptown site and Beth Israel’s new building.
As the Aug. 29 anniversary nears, New Orleans’ synagogues are marking the decade of struggle and resilience by hosting several commemorative events that will culminate in prayer services on the weekend of the anniversary. And in a sign of the giving-back spirit, the New Orleans federation is coordinating TikkuNola volunteer work that features such activities as collecting and distributing school supplies for charter school students.
A few days before Katrina struck, two leaders of the New Orleans-based Jewish Children’s Regional Service, a social work agency and charitable fund that serves seven Southern states, traveled I-10 to Houston to set up a satellite office.
Led by executive director Ned Goldberg and education coordinator Melanie Musser, a small staff of displaced JCRS staffers continued to offer their services, which included personal counseling, advice on obtaining government benefits, and scholarship assistance for universities and summer camps, to New Orleans evacuees. A small JCRS satellite office remains in the JFS headquarters here; after Katrina, the agency’s client base grew by more than 50 percent.
And Goldberg, who again works fulltime in New Orleans after nearly a year in Houston, again, came back here recently to give back. About a month after the Houston flooding, which took place a few days before the start of the official hurricane season, Goldberg was back on I-10 again, this time with a carload of new and gently used Judaica, books and games for flood victims that the agency had collected from its supporters.
“Katrina families were the first to volunteer” to help Houston, said Pat Pollicoff, president of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel, which suffered heavy water damage on Memorial Day. “They understood.”
A fundraising campaign under the auspices of the New Orleans Jewish federation, which included “dollar for dollar matches” for Houston Jewry from several donors, had raised “$27,470 from donors throughout the state … matched by the Goldring Family and Woldenberg foundations … for a total of $52,470,” the federation reported earlier this month.
“Katrina had a long-term effect on both New Orleans and Houston, creating a unique bond between the people of our two cities,” said Lee Wunsch, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.
Post-Katrina, the Jewish community of Houston was “amazing,” Weil said. “They gave us everything. Everyone was aware of the help Houston gave us.”
“The close relationship with Houston is mutually beneficial,” said Brandeis’ Sarna. “Through the years there have been Jewish communities that have closely assisted one another. Baltimore and Philadelphia have historically been intertwined. In early America, Shearith Israel [in Manhattan] helped various congregations get their start and would then, later, write to them for assistance.”
Houston will likely need the continued help, from New Orleanians as well as others.
Wunsch called the flooding the costliest in the Jewish community’s history. “It will take 18-24 months before things get back to normal,” he said. “The price tag for this is very significant. We’ve estimated the cost … at $3.5 million.”
Wunsch estimated that 500 Jewish families here “had their homes compromised … half will need some kind of community support.”
“Every synagogue has families affected by the flood,” he told New Orleans’ Crescent City Jewish News.
Leading the financial support of the federation’s Houston Flood Relief Fund was the Jewish Federations of North America, which made a $250,000 donation. Much of those relief funds will be allocated to JFS for “direct assistance to affected families,” Wunsch said.
The buildings that sustained the most damage were those of three congregations — Beth Israel, United Orthodox Synagogues, and the Meyerland Minyan — the teen building of the Jewish Community Center, and the JCC’s racquetball courts and toddler gym. They are in various stages of rebuilding and renovation; the affected synagogues, with the approach of the High Holy Days season, are holding worship services in mold-free, repaired rooms, some using texts donated by New Orleans congregations.
Drive through Meyerland and you see storage units in front of many homes, yellow building permits in many windows.
Active in the post-flood volunteer activities here are Chabad Lubavitch of Houston, the national NECHAMA and All Hands organizations, the Dallas-based Texas Torah Institute educational program, and Boy Scout Troop 806, sponsored by the Beth Israel Brotherhood. Several synagogues offered free community-wide barbecues and dinners, and the JCC ran a series of workshops about receiving government benefits, concerts and films.
JFS is still counseling people traumatized by the flooding, and offering a weekly support group, said Linda Burger, the group’s executive director. New faces show up each week, she said.
After the flood, JFS staffers set up a table at the popular Three Brothers kosher bakery, which gave out free challah rolls to flood victims.
The New Orleans JFS offered practical advice in such areas as case management and setting up an effective online communications system, Burger said. “We were very prepared. Katrina taught us not to be afraid to ask for help.”
Members of Houston’s Jewish community who had generously come to the aid of New Orleans a decade ago found themselves in an unfamiliar situation this summer, Burger said. “People said it’s a lot better to be on the giving side than on the receiving side.”
“It’s much easier to give the help,” echoed Beth El’s Pollicoff.
“It’s a humbling thing” to need help — “very humbling,” she said, adding praise for the Jewish community of New Orleans. “It’s tremendous to know we have their emotional support.”