The Army Corps of Engineers stretched a blue plastic tarp over the gashes left in Steve Richer’s roof by the three trees that could not withstand Katrina’s 150 mph winds. A four-man group from Chabad’s corps of relief volunteers arrived shortly afterward to help with the rest of the damage–physical, emotional and spiritual.
Richer, president of the local Beth Israel synagogue, turned to the four rabbinical students for help. Until Richer could locate an RV, he was living in his home’s attic. The ground floor was sopping after being submerged in a foot of water. His basement and the family heirlooms stored in it were a total loss. The stench rising from the carpets was intolerable and a breeding ground for noxious molds. Chabad’s crew got to work, ripped up the carpets and lugged them out. To combat the mold, they sprayed down Richer’s walls with a bleach solution.
Over at Beth Israel, relief corps members: Mendy Dubrowski, Mendy Horowitz, Shlame Landa and Aaron Backman cleared away fallen branches and the muck that clogged the synagogue’s grounds and indoor space. The brick faÃ§ade had crumbled in the storm, too massive for the Chabad corps to move, but just by being there trying to help, Chabad made a difference, said Richer, whose cousins are members of the Chabad community in Morristown, NJ. “I called my cousin and told her, ‘It is like family coming to help,’” said Richer. “And she said, ‘They are your family.’ Having Chabad here was a very special connection for me.”
A broken glass frame caught Richer’s eye as he picked his way through the debris-strewn streets a few days after Katrina howled through. A stranger’s pictures–a mother holding a squirming toddler, a grinning grandfather on a fishing trip–stared back at him, a lifetime of memories abandoned on a four foot high pile of wreckage. “The devastation is incredible,” said Richer. News of Mississippi’s plight took a back seat to the New Orleans disaster, but the impact of Katrina is no less staggering. “In six southern counties of Mississippi, out of 150,000 building, homes and businesses, approximately 50,000 are destroyed and another 85,000 are damaged. Only 15,000 are not destroyed or damaged in some way.”
Chabad was among many religious groups down in Mississippi to provide physical aid: water, clothing, shelter items. But Chabad also provided something on no one else’s list–care Jewish style: rabbinical counseling, mezuzahs, kosher food, along with hands-on help and emergency funds.
Chabad’s volunteers drove down from Brooklyn, NY, in a rented RV. Usually the RV plies the streets of New York City piloted by Chabad rabbinical students seeking to provide Jews with the opportunity to perform mitzvot like putting on tefillin or lighting Shabbat candles. Down in Biloxi, Long Beach, Hattiesberg, Gulfport and Jackson, the rabbis in training searched for Jewish people with a different sort of urgency. Two weeks after the storm, and yet electricity and phone service are on sporadically if at all. Homes damaged by the storms began to cave in under the water weight. Fastidious homeowners may have cleared their front yards, but they had little food or possessions within them.
Stocked with extra gasoline, water, 1000 self-heating meals, and a cache of mezuzahs, the corps sought to reach Jewish families in Mississippi to provide whatever help was needed. Using lists of Jewish residents generated by Chabad’s years of sending traveling rabbis to Mississippi over the summers, the volunteers drove through affected areas looking for their homes. Finding them proved difficult. Mapquest.com guidance was out because Internet service was down. Katrina’s winds had chewed up road signs and spat them out far away from their posts. Landa, a volunteer with the group, said they used maps from a CD-rom and counted blocks to map out their turns “like human GPS systems.”
Once the families were found, the volunteers’ real work began. Some Katrina survivors needed food. Others wanted to pray. But most wanted to tell how they survived. Like the business owner in Hattiesburg who went to nail plywood over his broken storefront window–a safer refuge than his tree studded home property – and got blown clear across the room by a gale. Or TV news producer Rayanne Weiss who helped keep WLOX-TV on air while her home got obliterated by the storm. She, her husband and four others had been living in the TV station for ten days when the Chabad team arrived. She gratefully accepted some of the kosher meals, nice hot food, once taken for granted, now a treat. “It was our job to do a great deal of listening,” said Dubrowski.
Inevitably, team members said, tales of survival yielded epiphanies about what’s really important. One Israeli man, an ex-New Yorker, who had been living on the Mississippi coast for several years but never visited the local temple, recognized the Chabad RV and approached, sleeve rolled up and ready to don tefillin.
Another family returned home just before their roof caved in. They were able to save their mezuzah, a “chamsah” Jewish amulet and a Sandy Koufax baseball card. Landa and his colleagues helped hang 20 mezuzahs. “A lot of people were interested in mezuzahs. They wanted to safeguard their home,” said Landa. “We took care of their Jewish security systems.”
Over Shabbat, the corps parked the RV alongside Bert Rubinsky’s home in Jackson. His wife’s grandmother had passed away in Lafayette, LA, during the evacuation from a New Orleans hospital en route to Houston. The young rabbis-to-be found a colleague who took on the responsibility of saying Kaddish for her. Rubinsky’s brother-in-law, a police office from New Orleans, was about to return home to resume duty. Chabad helped the family recite prayers and psalms for his safety. “It was a very emotionally charged service,” said Dubrowski.
Jewish people were the group’s focus but not the only beneficiaries. As the RV made its way down a residential street, the volunteers saw a man peeking through the curtains of his home. They stopped. The elderly man who answered the door had toughed out the storm as best he could, but his two broken legs and his reliance upon crutches had kept him from seeking out aid from relief centers. The Chabad group stocked the pantry with self-heating meals and offered to get him medical help. “When we came across people needing attention, helping them became part of our mission, no matter if they were Jewish or not,” said Dubrowski. Though the man refused medical help, “he was extremely thankful for the food.”
Dubrowski, Landa, Horowitz and Backman have returned north to work on other outreach projects in preparation for the High Holidays, but Chabad’s overall hurricane relief effort continues. That’s important, said Richer, who fears attention to the area will wane with the passage of time. “There is going to be massive amounts of counseling needed. The psychological impact of losing a house, losing friends, family, jobs, is immense. Having people down here well schooled in how to deal with the human condition would help.”
Richer continued, “I just want to say thank you to Chabad and to the Lubavitch movement. I know they are working hard and it is very much appreciated.”