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Katrina @ 8 - NOLA Jewish

This year August 29th falls during the month of Elul (unlike in 2005 and other years when it is in Av). It has been 8 years since the destruction wrought on our city and region by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As we reflect on the storm along with the amazing story of recovery that we have experienced, we must do so in Elul mode – with a sense of accounting.

With regards to the Jewish community, much has been written and said about the population rebound as well as the community’s ability to maintain and even grow our institutions. According to data gathered by the Jewish Federation we have returned to or even exceeded pre-storm numbers. This is a great achievement. Their efforts to market and represent the NOLA Jewish community have been successful in attracting many new people to our community. The financial support of the American Jewish community during those first years was a major factor in the survival and now rebounding of the NOLA Jewish community. Lastly, hard work and great effort was invested by each individual institution to ensure survival, rebounding and now growth.

I would like to reflect on the state of a particular element of the New Orleans Jewish community – the life that a Torah observant Jew can experience in New Orleans. There are several pillars (in no particular order) to Torah observant life that makes a person or family dependent on community. The opportunity to worship as part of a community. The availability of Kosher food. The existence of a Mikvah. The opportunity to study with others as part of a shiur. The camaraderie and support of other like-minded individuals. The presence of Rabbis who can teach, counsel, conduct life cycle events and inspire. Accessibility of Torah observant Jewish education. This is all in addition to the amazing benefits of being part of the broader community.

The New Orleans Jewish community meets all of those requirements. Some come with a struggle and some are provided for more amply. There are Shuls of many stripes that offer Shabbat and holiday services so that almost anyone can feel comfortable in one of them. There are new Shuls and vintage Shuls. There is an Eruv in Metairie and another in the works for New Orleans. There is a daily Minyan for Shachrit, Mincha and Maariv hosted by the two Chabad Shuls. (Though in the interest of Elul reckoning, the Minyan can use some support – feel free to participate!!!)

We have several Kosher establishments, the newest being the Peacebaker, and Kosher food is readily available. There is a well-established and respected Kashrut agency, the LKC that oversees the Kashrut of many establishments and catering events around town.

There is a beautiful Mikvah, whose recently completed facility was dedicated by Lee and Steve Rittvo. Since the completion of the Mikvah several years ago, participation and attendance has increased each year.

There are numerous learning opportunities, both public and private Shiurim, that are offered all over town. There are weekly and monthly classes, lecture series and wonderful courses that appeal to every level of Jewish knowledge. They range from Hebrew reading to advanced Talmud and Chassidic thought, as well as everything in between.

There are warm and energetic Rabbis – both younger and older, more experienced Rabbis - and wonderful friends that welcome anyone with open arms. There are chessed committees and lots of plain old Ahavat Yisrael abounds everywhere.

TA_Aug201_0013[2].jpgTA_Aug201_0001[1].jpgTorah Academy has been the Torah observant school for the New Orleans Jewish community since 1993. Though Katrina dealt the school a blow in terms of population and the facility, the school has remained open and committed to educating Jewish children in the ways of our Torah throughout the tough times. Torah Academy is on the cusp of a new era. A new facility is going up on West Esplanade Ave off Transcontinental. A young new executive director, Rabbi Michael Kerendian, has been hired and is moving to New Orleans later this year to oversee the rebound of this important pillar of the NOLA community. (See the photos of the construction taken by @Alexander Barkoff.)

8 years after Katrina, we have a lot to be proud of and there is also much left to be done to make things even better. Working together we can continue to ensure that New Orleans is a wonderful place to live for Jewish people until that long awaited moment when Mashiach takes us all of out of exile with the complete and final redemption very soon.

Shabbat Shalom and L’shana Tova to all.
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Small but not insignificant

Several years ago we took the kids to the Audubon Insectarium. One of their more popular exhibits is the exotic butterfly garden. As a security measure, the butterfly garden’s two phased exit is set up so that both doors are not open at the same time, which prevents the butterflies from escaping.

During our visit a child mistakenly opened one door while the other was open and a butterfly escaped into the main exhibit area. The entire facility went into emergency lockdown mode. All exits were secured and they set out to locate the runaway butterfly. Within 15 minutes they find it hiding in an AC vent. It took about another 15 minutes to get a ladder and climb up with a net to capture the butterfly and bring it back to its proper place.

I asked one of the staffers why it was so imperative to capture the butterfly before it gets out into the street. He explained that since it was not an indigenous species it could cause harm to the local ecosystem with its eating habits and reproductive pace.

In light of the Baal Shemtov’s instruction to apply every encounter as a lesson in serving G-d, I thought that this is a very appropriate Elul lesson. Sometimes we think of certain Mitzvot or transgressions as small or insignificant. We regard it as no big deal in the scope of history or the vastness of the universe.

The anecdote of the escaped butterfly teaches that even the smallest thing can have a major impact on something very large. Indeed the Rambam teaches that a person should always view the next step they are about to take as the one that can impact the future of humanity and the entire world. As such, when we engage in Elul reckoning we must also account for the “small” deeds – good and bad – as they can be a major factor in our own lives and the world around us.

Our heartfelt condolences are extended to Natalia and Fernando Promoslovsky upon the passing of her mother.

Mazel Tov to Sarah and Zev Attias upon the birth of their son. The Bris will be held this Sunday at 1 PM at Chabad of Metairie. We look forward to celebrating with them.

May Hashem bless each and every one of us with a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year of 5774.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Soldier's Sensitivity / Anna's Divine Providence

Most of the Torah’s instructions regarding war can be found at the end of last week’s Torah portion and flowing into this week’s Torah portion. Among the issues covered are, G-d instructs us how to offer peace, how to approach a siege, how to deal with certain populations, how to maintain an army, and how soldiers should conduct themselves during war.

However in the middle of the passages that deal with war, the Torah interrupts to address the discovery of an unidentified corpse outside a city. The city elders and the priests need to come and perform a ceremony and declare “our hands did not spill this blood.” This passage conveys Hashem’s great pain over needless loss of life.

Context is very important in the Torah. As such the placement of this passage in the middle of the section on war is somewhat curious. I recently heard a beautiful solution to this issue. The Jewish soldiers that went to war needed to banish their fear and somewhat suppress their sensitivity in order to fight the righteous battles of G-d and defend their people against enemies who wished to destroy them. Being involved in war, destruction and killing, soldiers can encounter a difficulty in reacquainting themselves with the sensitivity that was suppressed and once again heighten the value of each and every human life. Therefore the Torah inserts the passage about the tragedy of death, seemingly out of context, because it is just the lesson needed to maintain the balance needed to be mindful of the value of a human life.

Last fall we introduced you to a local artist named Anna Gil, who created a series of paintings called Letters of Light focusing on the Hebrew Alphabet. Following successful exhibits at two French Quarter galleries, Anna encountered a strange phenomenon. Even though the exhibits went well each of the galleries expressed a similar sentiment when they asked her to remove her work, “we do not want to be known as the ‘Shalom Gallery’ around here.” It seemed that her work was too Jewish to be featured in their galleries.

Anna was feeling very down after being informed by yet another gallery that they did not want her work. She arrived home and opened her laptop where she saw one of her pieces on the screen. She thought it strange because she did not recall leaving it open. When she took a closer look, it was part of an email from Chabad.org in which they were asking to feature her work in a blog section called Art for the Soul. She felt that G-d had given her this amazing sense of uplifting after feeling so down from her earlier encounter with the gallery. This is an example of what is known as Hashgacha Pratis or Divine Providence. The hand of Hashem can be discovered in the most unexpected places or times. Anna’s feature can be found at www.chabadneworleans.com/2277989. Her work was featured last weekend at the National Jewish Retreat’s Living in Joy art show. She has also done exhibits in Venice and Paris. For more on her work see www.annagil.com.

Mazel Tov to Ephraim Ashurov upon his upcoming marriage to Esther Shalumov.

KVT and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Search and Rescue

The story is told about a resident of the silly town of Chelm who was observed searching for a lost ring under the street lamp. He was asked, "where did you lose the ring?" He answered, "down the street." "So why are you looking here instead of there?" Because it is light here." This story is a perfect metaphor for our own silliness that we express durign the month of Elul, the month of reckoning and spiritual stock-taking. 

Our sages interpret the term Yisrael (Israelite) as being Sar Keil a master or minister of or over G-d. Chasidic teachings illuminate this interpretation in the following way. Every Jew has a spark of Keil (G-d) within the core of the soul. Yisrael indicates that this "Keil" is the Sar, the master or dominating force in the Jew's life. This is the ideal to which every Jew aspires.

At times it is possible that the Jew fails to live up to potential of being a Yisrael. Under those circumstances it is possible that the spark of G-d gets lost within the vast emptiness of the persons life. Regarding this the verse instructs, "and you shall seek Hashem your G-d there and you shall find." This emphasizes to us the importance of looking for the spark of G-d where we lost it. It is not good enough to look over our Torah, prayer and Mitzvot and fool ourselves into concluding that all is well. We must honestly confront our less desirable side so that we can find the lost spark of G-d and restore it back to its proper place within our souls. As the verse states, "in the marketplaces and the streets have I found the One whom my soul desries." We need to go to the "outside" of our lives to seek and find the love and connection to Hashem that was diluted due to our negative experiences throughout the year. 

Of one thing we are assured. If a person makes the effort to seek his G-dly spark and reconnect with Hashem, Hashem will be waiting for him with a "smiling face and shining countenance." Hashem's love for us is unbounded and His strongest desire it to be close to us. As such it should be a labor of love for us to fulfill that desire. Happy searching! Happy finding! Happy Elul!

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year! Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

An Elijah Sighting

There is a story of a Jew who asked the Baal Shemtov how he could merit seeing Elijah the Prophet. The Baal Shemtov instructed him to fill a wagon with food and clothing and travel to a particular village for Rosh Hashanah. He was to go to the shack at the edge of town and ask to spend the holiday with them. Upon answering his knock, a woman informed him that she had nothing for her family so she would find it difficult to host him for the holiday. He replied that he had enough for everyone and even some new clothes and shoes for the children. After two days filled with anticipation that he would finally achieve his dream of seeing Elijah, he returned with great disappointment to the Baal Shemtov.

 

The Baal Shemtov instructed him to load up a wagon with food and housewares and return to that village for Yom Kippur. As he approached the shack he heard a child’s voice calling excitedly, “Mommy, do you remember the great miracle that happened to us on Rosh Hashanah when Eliyahu Hanavi came to visit? Well he is here again with provisions for the next holiday.” Upon hearing this he understood the message that the Baal Shemtov was trying to convey. Sometimes being an “Elijah” is as valuable as seeing the real thing.

In life there are opportunities to be “angels” that provide help in one form or another. This past Saturday night a few of us sat in the OR waiting room at Ochsner as Hagar Vaks, an Israeli patient, underwent a liver and kidney transplant. She had a seven month wait during which various members of her family stayed with her in New Orleans. The procedure lasted over seven hours. At 2 AM, Dr. Ari Cohen emerged to inform her father, Nissim, that the surgery was successful. He mentioned that there were several other transplants underway and they had a few on the previous two nights as well. I asked him how he endures such long and intense periods of time without sleep and he dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. I realized that here was another Elijah, a group of “angels” that literally save lives under very trying circumstances. I was awed by their dedication and their privilege of being G-d’s messengers to bring healing and life to so many. May Hagar have a Refuah Sheleimah – complete recovery and may Hashem bless her medical team for their role in giving her a new lease on life.

This week was a busy one for Simchas – happy occasions. There was a wedding, an Upshernish, two births, and a Pidyon Haben.

Mazel Tov to Chaya (Kaufmann) & Berry Silver upon their marriage.

Mazel Tov to Jennifer & Neil Schneider for Josh’s Upshernish.

Mazel Tov to Joe & Suzanne Insler upon the birth of a son. Congratulations to the proud grandparents Barbara & Michael Insler.

Mazel Tov to Tzivyah (Kehaty) & Shloime Greenwald upon the birth of their daughter, Tamar Leah. Special Mazel Tov to the grandparents Rivkah & Uzzi Kehaty.

Mazel Tov to Orit & Benny Naghi for the Pidyon Haben (redemption of the firstborn) of their son Meir Efraim.

Good Shabbos and Kesiva Vachasima Tova, L’shana Tova U’mesukah.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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