Beliefnet
As residents of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast prepare for Passover, which celebrates God bringing the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, it's as if they have lived through an epic of almost biblical proportions.

"You're talking about Exodus, where you're going from something terrible, being under the rule of Pharaoh, toward freedom," said Lori Beth Susman, a board member of a conservative synagogue in Biloxi, Miss. "For many of us, the last seven months have been that kind of journey."

Congregations along the Gulf Coast find themselves at different places on that journey after August's arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane in American history. Their Passover plans reveal the many ways Katrina continues to affect their religious lives, from damaging their synagogues to still scattering once-close members of congregations.

Traditionally, Passover is celebrated with a Seder dinner, at which the story of the Exodus is told. Families often have a first night Seder at home, and many synagogues hold a second night Seder. This year, the holiday begins at sundown Wednesday (April 12), and lasts eight days for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and seven days for Reform Jews.

Susman's congregation, Beth Israel, is unable to hold services or a traditional Seder because of extensive wind damage. Instead, they will have the annual Seder at a local Methodist church, which also hosts their Sabbath services in a fellowship hall.

One of the most heavily damaged synagogues in the region, a New Orleans Orthodox congregation also called Beth Israel, has a decimated building and displaced members.

The synagogue, which is near the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee, got 10 feet of water in the sanctuary. Their membership is down about 30 percent from the pre-Katrina figure of 165 families, some of whom lived close enough to walk to services before they lost their homes.

"Everything was destroyed," said Eddie Gothard, past president of the congregation. "Every bench, every book, seven Torahs, every file cabinet, every record."

The damaged Torahs were buried in a Jewish cemetery on March 19. (Out of respect, damaged Torahs are buried, not thrown away.) At the same ceremony, two new Torahs, donated by out-of-state synagogues, were dedicated.

"Torahs don't die," said Gothard. "What the Torah really is -- the concepts, the precepts, the history of our people, the laws we have to follow -- that's not lost at all. What's still here is our congregation and our dedication to being an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans."

As a sign of that commitment, Beth Israel holds Sabbath services about every three weeks in a room at a nearby Reform synagogue, officiated by rabbis and Yeshiva students sent by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

There will be no synagogue-based Passover celebrations this year, but Gothard and others will have Seders at home.

"There is too much that is not normal, (like) driving down the street and seeing the piles of trash and the FEMA trailers in front yards," he said. "We would like to see something that reminds us of normal. That's what I think Passover represents. When you get back to your traditions, you realize at some point you're getting over this."

At Shir Chadash, a conservative synagogue in Metairie, La., just outside New Orleans, traditions will continue. The synagogue was flooded with 12 to 16 inches of water, but repairs are under way. There are no pews in the sanctuary, and the floors in the social hall are cement.

Nonetheless, they will have a second night Seder and Passover services. They hope to collect donations to underwrite the cost of the dinner so they can invite aid workers in the area to attend for free.

Two Reform congregations in the New Orleans area are further along in their repair process and will also host Seders. But they, too, are dealing with Katrina's aftermath.

Before Katrina, Touro synagogue counted more than 600 families as members, and 50 percent to 70 percent of them are back, but some, including one-third of the staff, suffered catastrophic damage to their homes.

This year, Seder tickets have been reduced to $10 per member, thanks to underwriting. They also have funds available to help congregants replace Seder pieces like plates and matzoh covers that may have been lost in the storm.

At Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, underwriting has also reduced the cost of a Seder ticket to $10. The synagogue got 31/2 feet of water in the sanctuary. More than $1 million in repairs are almost complete.

While about 75 percent of its 480 families are back in the area, about half of them are living in less than ideal conditions. Some are in trailers or living on only the second floor of their houses.

Because both congregations and congregants are financially strained, the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism has established a fund called SOS New Orleans: Supporting Our Synagogues, to help pay operating expenses for the four Reform synagogues in the New Orleans area. So far, more than $615,000 has been raised.

"We're on our way back to the Promised Land," said Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer. "The Promised Land is wholeness. Redemption is the goal of Passover, not in the ultimate end of days sense, but rather in the sense of wholeness and freedom and coming together."

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