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Katrina Plus 10

It was a hot day in late August and we found ourselves heading west toward Houston. But no, I am not describing an evacuation in 2005 but rather a trip to Houston in 2015 for a wonderful purpose. Malkie and I, along with a nice New Orleans contingent, were in Houston this week for the wedding of Chana Kaufmann and Yaakov Hellinger. While Chana is a native of New Orleans, her wedding was held in Houston where her father, Dr. David Kaufmann, is undergoing medical treatment. May Hashem grant him a complete and speedy recovery so that he and Nechama can resume their lives as Shluchim in the New Orleans Jewish community.

In addition to celebrating with the Kaufmanns, the wedding was an opportunity to once again express our deep appreciation for the amazing kindness and hospitality that the Houston community showed us during those trying days, weeks and months after Katrina. To be back there just days before the 10th anniversary of the storm was both uncanny and at the same time ironically appropriate. The wedding was a wonderful reunion of two communities joined together by tragedy but kept together by kindness and caring.

Speaking of the 10 year mark, I am acutely aware that there some, perhaps many, for whom the notion of celebrating, or even marking, the 10th anniversary of the storm and the subsequent rebirth of our region, is quite disturbing. This is perfectly understandable. Katrina was a horrific tragedy that left thousands dead, tens of thousands homeless and hundreds of thousands with destroyed property and quality of life. We are speaking of the destruction of a city and a region. The loss of life, property and population. The loss of history and knowing that some things will never be the same.

At the same time, I believe that those (and there are many) that can bring themselves to take a look back at the positives that came forth in the aftermath of Katrina, have an obligation to do so and be thankful. Last week this forum was used to highlight and thank those who aided us, our people and our region during and after the storm. This week I would like to highlight the growth and development since the storm.

There were millions of acts of kindness. We were all recipients of so much goodness from so many. There is the raising of social awareness and the new groups and non-profits that are involved in the rebuilding and reinvention of New Orleans. There is the economic growth, success of the charter schools, and young blood looking to be a part of an historical resurgence. We have a political climate with less tolerance for corruption. There is now a greater focus on environmental issues like wetlands and coastal erosion.

The Jewish community has come out strong and there are many new initiatives and wonderful developments in our greater New Orleans Jewish community. Much will be written over the weekend and we will celebrate our resilience and rebirth at the Katrina @ 10 community celebration this Sunday afternoon 5-7 PM at the Uptown JCC.

On the Chabad front, every single Chabad institution was either renovated, rebuilt or constructed in the last ten years. We have a restored Chabad Center in Metairie. A newly constructed Rohr Chabad Student Center at Tulane. A beautiful Mikvah at the Ringger Center for Women’s Enrichment. A rebuilt Btesh Family Chabad House in Uptown. A newly established Chabad presence on the MS Gulf Coast (Fall 2014), and a brand new Chabad presence in Baton Rouge. These five Chabad institutions are staffed by ten Shluchim couples (see http://www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=55793&p=1).

The Chabad Hebrew School in Metairie is off to a successful new year. Camp Gan Israel had a nice renewal this year. The Living Legacy Series, underwritten by the Woldenberg Foundation, has reached hundreds of children from Lake Charles to Biloxi. Chabad at Tulane is serving an unprecedented number of students, both undergrad and graduates (who now have their own program). Chabad Young Jewish Professionals is offering programming to the many young people who are swarming to our community. Chabad’s holiday programs are attracting record crowds each year. This is just a sample of the post-K development.

Torah Academy, which was founded by Chabad in 1993, with a 2005 school year enrollment of 60, was slammed by the storm. The facility was damaged, families left and devastation remained. 10 years later with a brand new facility, a diverse board and broad Rabbinic advisory committee, Torah Academy is becoming a school for the community. The 2015 school year began with over 40 children enrolled and a lot of positive energy. We are looking forward to continued growth and development.

We have much be thankful for and a lot from which to be inspired and propelled toward additional progress!

Mazel Tov Rabbi Mendy and Rachel Traxler upon the birth of their daughter Chana. Mazel tov to the grandparents, Dr. David and Nechama Kaufmann.

Mazel Tov to Stephen and Mery Blitz upon the bris of their son Rachamim Yehudah.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Our Katrina Gratitude

As the Katrina @ 10 anniversary looms closer many people are utilizing the opportunity to talk about the growth and development of New Orleans and the region since the storm. Every angle is being explored – the general community, the Jewish community, there is even a great four part series the Chabad.org did this week on Chabad of Louisiana. (See below in the news section.) This is a good thing. We need to highlight the positives that have come forth despite all of the losses and suffering associated with the storm. G-d willing next week, I will indulge in some of that as well.

But I think that before we engage in back patting (I don’t mean that sarcastically) it behooves us to also express our gratitude to those who helped us through the dark and difficult days thereby enabling us to reach the 10 year milestone with such wonderful results.

I would like to take a few moments to thank those that helped Chabad of Louisiana and our community in the aftermath of Katrina. Inevitably when one creates a list there are worthy people that are omitted and I therefore beg forgiveness from those whom I will unwittingly omit.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Jewish community got its experience in contemporary disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. Those relief efforts then became the textbook for all subsequent disaster responses.

The Chabad centers that are located in the ring around New Orleans (Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and others) welcomed members of our community before, during and after the hurricane. Chabad of Houston, under the leadership of Rabbi and Mrs. Shimon Lazaroff and their fellow Shluchim, were amazingly hospitable. They opened up their homes and their institutions to our families. They set up and furnished temporary housing and absorbed our children into their school. We were able to set up a temporary office and “Chabad of Louisiana in exile” to serve our fellow NOLA Jews. We thank Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Rabbi Marinowsky, Rabbi Traxler, the Gavin family, the Amber family and many more who were so involved.

Chabad World HQ partnered with us to set up a three phase response. The first was Search and Rescue. Two SAR teams were hired by Chabad and were dispatched to the NOLA area along with a pair of Yeshiva students, Levi Shmotkin and Mendel Druk. The teams saved dozens of lives (including elderly folks whose family members contacted us and asked for help in rescuing them). They also removed the Torahs and essential equipment from NOLA Chabad centers to get them out of harm’s way. The second was a relief team that was sent to Southern Mississippi and another to Baton Rouge. The third was a fund raising effort that generated significant funds allowing us to help many people financially after the storm. It also enabled Chabad to continue to function through the end of 2005. Rabbis Krinsky, Kotlarsky, Scharfstein and Berkowitz and their associates were very dedicated to assisting in any way that they could. We also thank the Rohr family for their generosity then and since then.

The fund raising effort was successful because hundreds of Chabad centers around the world encouraged people to contribute. The outpouring of support and care was something to which every Katrina survivor can attest. Many Chabad centers and other national organizations such as OU, Agudah, AJC, NCYI and regional federations and congregations were supportive of Chabad’s fundraising effort.

In Baton Rouge the home base was an apartment given to Chabad for use by Hank Mann, who has since become a very good friend. In Houston a truck arrived with supplies sent by the Ramaz school community (who later sent a relief mission to New Orleans under the leadership of Deedee Benel). NOLA folks came shopping in our garage where the supplies were dropped off.

That Rosh Hashanah a retreat was arranged in Monroe for NOLA folks. The Hakim family of Monroe were very hospitable and we set up shop at their Atrium hotel. Over 100 people participated.

Chabad on Campus sent two groups for relief missions in late 2005 and early 2006. Subsequently many groups have volunteered for hurricane relief and rebuilding here in New Orleans.

The UJC (now known as JFNA) stepped forward in early 2006 and undertook to subsidize all NOLA region Jewish organizations for two years through the end of 2007. We thank the professional and lay leadership of the UJC for that amazing salvation, which enabled us to survive and even thrive. I want to single out Howard Feinberg for his devotion. The NOLA Jewish community had the chance to express gratitude during the 2010 GA that was hosted by our city. This generosity was facilitated locally by the NOLA Federation under the leadership of Alan Bissinger, Alan Franco, Eric Stillman, Bobby Garon, Roselle Ungar, Mike Wasserman, Julie Wise Oreck, Michael Weil and others.

Finally there were thousands of individuals who called, visited, contributed and took an interest in the welfare of our community over the last 10 years. Together all of these large and small acts of kindness created a tidal wave of goodness and love that have propelled our community, city and region to amazing heights. They have each had a part in this story and we thank every last one of them. We couldn't have done it without you.

Mazal Tov to Mery and Stephen Blitz upon the birth of their son.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

I am to my beloved and that's it!

We are about to begin the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar. Our sages famously point out that the Hebrew word Elul (Alef Lamed Vov Lamed) is the acronym for the verse from Song of Songs 6:3, Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. This passage is spoken in the voice of the Jewish people who proclaim their love and devotion to Hashem to the exclusion of all else.

By association, the month of Elul is a good time to examine the degree of our devotion and love to Hashem. To understand this let us explore what Ani L’dodi – I am to my beloved – would mean in a human relationship – a marriage. When a person declares that “I am to my beloved” that should mean that whatever thoughts, feelings, communications and actions define their relationship – their marriage – should be reserved solely for their spouse and no other.

In a similar sense, Ani L’dodi that we say to Hashem should mean that any experience that would intersect our relationship with Hashem should be exclusively within the parameters of how Hashem defines that relationship for us. In simple terms, Hashem gave us a Torah filled with instructions on how we can maintain our connection to Him. A Jew who proclaims Ani L’dodi (and every Jew does so deep within their core essence) must not seek any type of fulfillment in life from anything that is antithetical to the structure set forth for us in the Torah.

Just as a healthy marriage would not have one spouse seeking marital fulfillment (whether emotional, physical or whatever it may be) outside of the spousal relationship, so to a Jew should not seek fulfillment in life from something outside of the relationship with Hashem.

The verse continues, Ha’roeh Ba’shoshanim – who feeds among the roses. Indeed in Jewish literature, a person who seeks fulfillment in life outside of their devotion to Hashem, is referred to as “grazing in foreign pastures.” The declaration of Ani L’dodi means that I cease to even entertain the notion that there is something meaningful in life outside of what Hashem has defined for me. We do not “flirt” with the idea that there is foreign pasture more satisfying for us in which to graze. This does not connote close-mindedness to other possibilities, but rather fierce devotion to what we know to be the truest and most fulfilling love and lifestyle – a connection to Hashem.

Enjoy the roses!

Shabbat Shalom and may Hashem inscribe and seal all of us for a good and sweet year filled with health, prosperity, nachas and spiritual growth. May the entire world be blessed with the ultimate blessing – the coming of Moshiach and the redemption.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Shechinah is in the house!

Ethics of our Fathers 3:6 teaches, “When ten Jews study Torah together, the Divine Presence – Shechinah – rests in their midst.” The sages of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a, take it one step further and declare, ”On each gathering of ten Jews the Divine Presence rests.” The implication being that even if the ten Jews are not engaged in a holy endeavor such as Torah study, the Shechinah is still in their midst. How much more so then, when they are involved in a G-dly task, that they most certainly merit the presence of the Shechinah. I often comment to the tenth man walking in to Shul at morning minyan, “You just brought the Divine Presence with you.”

This summer Chabad of Louisiana has reached a very special benchmark. With the arrival of two new Shluchim couples, Rabbi Peretz and Mushka Kazen – Chabad of Baton Rouge, and Rabbi Leibel and Mushka Lipskier – Chabad at Tulane, we now have a minyan of Shluchim. Ten couples that are engaged in the work that the Rebbe set out for them, strengthening Judaism, inspiring Jews, teaching morality and goodness, helping to make the world a Dwelling for the Divine. There is no question that this collection of “10” has certainly merited the presence of the Shechinah in their midst.

We welcome the new additions and wish them much success in their undertaking.

May Hashem grant this added “power of 10” to the work of Chabad. With this new strength, and together with you, our partners in all that we do, we will succeed in bringing the Shechinah to our communities and by extension to the whole world with the coming of Moshiach.

Last week we celebrated out daughter Basy’s Bas Mitzvah. It was a very meaningful affair that we attended by a lovely cross section of NOLA Jewish women. The theme of the event was “making the impossible possible.” This idea was presented using visual displays, a video presentation, a musical performance, and the speeches – including, most importantly, by Basy herself. A delicious dinner and dessert buffet topped of the wonderful evening that ended with spirited dancing.

There were three angles to theme. The first angle highlighted Basy’s biblical namesake – Batya (Basya) the daughter of Pharaoh. When she say the baby basket (holding Moses) in the Nile River, it was too far away for her to reach. But this did not deter her from trying. When she stretched her arm out a miracle occurred and it reached all the way to the baby basket. She saved Moses and by extension the entire Jewish nation through her effort.

The second angle focused on Basy’s familial namesake, Basya Ettel Stone (Malkie’s grandmother). Defying odds and conventional wisdom, she and her husband displayed a determined dedication to Judaism in the face of many challenges to an observant lifestyle during the 30s and 40s in the USA. They even sent their only son across the country at the age of ten to ensure that he had a Jewish education.

The third angle was of the Jewish women who left Egypt led by Miriam, who packed tambourines and musical instruments with a strong faith that G-d would perform a miracle that would need to be celebrated. Indeed at the Red Sea they danced and played the instruments in gratitude to G-d for His great miracles.

Photos of the celebration can be seen at www.chabadneworleans.com/3028588.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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