Search and Rescue

My half-brother, David is still missing. The last time I spoke to him was Monday night (August 29) more than a week ago. He was still at his home at ----- Street. That is one block on the other side of Esplanade Avenue, in the Marigny, near the French Quarter.

David is 25 years old, long light brown hair, long beard, about 5 ft 9 and about 225 lbs. He is a very kind and soft hearted man, very slightly mentally challenged. He worked at a big warehouse near the end of Canal Street. He might be hiding in there, but the last time I spoke to him he was hiding in his closet at his home on ----Street.

It’s the stuff of a real-life drama unfolding on the streets of New Orleans along perilously thin lines of life and death. Such were the appeals for help posted on the Jewish Hurricane Relief website. Over the last several days, Chabad has pulled over 70 people from New Orleans. 

One of those rescued, a 62 year-old man who hadn’t eaten in eight days would not respond to military personnel who tried to get him to leave his place. “He is a very shy, loner type,” explained Jack, a volunteer from New York who joined Chabad’s rescue teams (and asked to have his last name withheld.) When Jack and Levi, a Chabad rabbinical student, arrived to the area, the MPs told them about Alan. Perhaps they would have more success in reaching him.

It was only when Alan saw Levi, in visibly Chasidic garb, explains Jack, that Alan came out of his house. “He was ecstatic at the sight of a rabbi coming to his rescue.” Alan was taken to Baton Rouge, where paramedics gave him medical attention, and from there, arrangements were made to place him with a host family.

As the rescue efforts employing boats, choppers and trucks to evacuate people from New Orleans winds down, Chabad is turning its attention to removing the dead, says Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein who is heading the crisis management team for Lubavitch Headquarters. Early this morning, Rabbi Edgar Gluck, Chaplain for the New York Medical Examiner’s Office left New York for New Orleans at the behest of Chabad’s rescue mission, to coordinate the difficult task of identifying and retrieving Jewish bodies and preparing them for burial in accordance with Jewish law. Relief workers say they expect to find many among the dead in the streets of New Orleans.

As each individual is brought to safety, family members are overwhelmed with gratitude. On Wednesday, it was Chabad’s turn to be touched when James O’connell, an intrepid and dedicated volunteer from Metro New York Search and Rescue, working closely with Chabad’s rescue mission, braved danger to salvage five Torah Scrolls from the Chabad center in New Orleans. “James was heroic in his daring,” says Sharfstein. When an additional two Torahs from the Chabad synagogue in Metairie were saved yesterday, rescue workers held an impromptu, small celebration.

On another front—and there are many competing demands for help that Chabad is working simultaneously to address —Chabad has sent additional human resources to step up its relief aid to people in the shelters. “We’ll be visiting as many shelters as we can to identify specific needs of Jewish evacuees and to provide kosher meals to kosher observers." says Mendel Druk, one of Chabad’s relief aid workers who is in Baton Rouge says. Druk adds that a number of Muslims who observe halal dietary laws approached Chabad for kosher meals, "and we were glad to accomodate them.

Today a team of yeshiva students with an additional one thousand non-refrigerated self-heating meals in tow, are on the road in an RV from New York to Jackson, Mississippi, where they hope to improvise Shabbat services and dinners for Jewish evacuees. In the course of the next two weeks, the team expects to be visiting Gulf Stream cities that were hard hit by the hurricane, among them Biloxi, Gulfport and Mobile. “Our people in the field are in contact with area representatives of the UJC,” says Rabbi Sharfstein.

Chabad’s relief workers took a call earlier today from FEMA representatives in search of kosher provisions for their Orthodox Jewish workers. “We made our way there immediately, and brought kosher provisions to FEMA’s headquarters in Baton Rouge,” Druk says. “We’ll also be bringing them traditional Shabbos fare,” to tide them over the Shabbos as well.

After several days in the thick of the most demanding rescue efforts, caught up with Jack who had just returned to New York, to be with his family.

“Chabad saved lives. They made it possible for me to do my part.” Jack points to the phenomenon of Chabad rabbis arriving in the middle of the south, where “so many people have never seen a religious Jew, and now they are being offered help. It was tremendous, he says, the way that Chabad got into this.

"And they'll just going to keep going.”

Several Chabad yeshiva students have also be deployed to southern Mississippi to visit some of the ravaged Jewish communities. The many evacuees that they have met seem to be in good spirits, and they deeply appreciate a visit from Chabad.

Rabbi Zelig Rivkin and other New Orleans Shluchim on Chabad’s crisis management team fielded hundreds of calls from relatives who were trying to have their loved ones rescued. Many were frustrated by their inability to get an elderly parent to leave, and have turned to Chabad after other efforts to remove them were unsuccessful.

Relief workers were running out of food, and did not even have money for gas . . . working with Chabad would facilitate a far more effective rescue effort.

“We are providing rescue workers with specific leads and direct information that we received from people concerned about their loved ones who have not made it out,” explains Rabbi Rivkin. “We are verifying medical conditions to help relief personnel work with them to ensure that they will be removed from their homes, where they are in certain danger.” Chabad’s Rescue and Relief is providing counseling for those who refuse to leave, to get them to agree to do so voluntarily.

On Tuesday, Chabad’s Rescue and Relief teams succeeded to coax an elderly individual with an emergency medical condition out of his home after repeated attempts by other relief personnel have failed. After coordinating with the 82nd Airborne Division and several other rescue teams, the elderly man was finally removed and taken to Baton Rouge where he will be stabilized. From there, explains Rabbi Sharfstein, “we will fly him to his relatives who have been in constant contact with us.”

This is typical of the rescue missions that are being addressed on a case by case basis, in the midst of what relief workers on the scene describe as a very difficult situation. “It is very literally a matter of life and death,” says Sharfstein who is in constant contact with Chabad's rescue workers on the ground. Compounding the situation is the violence—many relief workers are being shot at, their vehicles stolen and "they must have law enforcement protection to allow them to proceed,” he says.

Further impairing rescue efforts by other teams were a lack of funds, an absence of accurate information and a support system. Relief workers were running out of food, and did not even have money for gas, prompting Ari Gruenzweig, Director of TriState Search and Rescue and one of the directors of Metro NY Search and Rescue, to turn to Chabad which has its people who know the terrain well, and could guide the relief workers. “Chabad has a lot of resources and information,” said Gruenzweig, explaining that working with Chabad would facilitate a far more effective rescue effort.

The New Orleans Chabad representatives were working off a mental list to contact people, but today relief workers managed to get into Rabbi Rivkin's house to retrieve a hard copy of Chabad's community list. Relatives of people still missing in New Orleans are contacting their local Chabad representatives nationwide, for help.

While the immediate focus is on search and rescue, Chabad’s RR is also now working with authorities to retrieve the dead. “These are people who died alone, in very sad conditions,” says Sharfstein. “Their relatives are anxious, and we’d like to retrieve their bodies and give them a respectful Jewish burial as soon as possible.”