The High Holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the festive days following–invite powerful associations for many people. There’s the family you may see only rarely; friends and community members you get reacquainted with, and the familiar tastes and scents of the holiday.
But for thousands of Jews this year, nothing will be quite the same. In cities ravaged by the natural disasters of recent weeks, synagogues will be empty this Rosh Hashanah, their congregants scattered across various states–bereft of home, possessions and all the familiar signs of the approaching holiday.
So Chabad of New Orleans is setting out to recreate the experience of being home for the holidays for several hundred members of New Orleans’ Jewish community. Despite the ambitious sound of the project, it seems do-able, given the simplicity of Chabad’s plan: Invite the community to spend Rosh Hashana at a family-style hotel in Monroe, Louisiana. All expenses, including transportation back and forth (Chabad is chartering buses from Houston and Memphis), meals, and lodging, will be covered by sponsors, allowing families with little or no current source of livelihood to celebrate the holiday with the familiar faces of their friends from home.
“Our community is spread out across several states right now,” says Rabbi Yossi Nemes, who leads the Chabad center in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. “Though many have received invitations to spend the holiday elsewhere, it is very comforting to share it others who are experiencing the same loss as you are, and can relate to the feelings you have.” An added benefit for community members currently making decisions for the future is the power of collective brainstorming and the opportunity to hear and learn from the experiences of their fellow New Orlean-eans.
Emphasizing that particularly this Rosh Hashanah, the first holiday since Katrina, it is vital for the community to be together, Nemes says that he and his wife and family will be joining the community for the Rosh Hashana retreat. With them will be New Orleans’ four other Shluchim and their families. With three families in Texas and two in New York, it’s a trip for them, but, says Nemes, “we feel that our place is with the community, offering as much support as we can.”
Chabad Rabbis expect some 250 people at the retreat, a mix of families and singles, most of whom they know personally. Monroe, a small town that is centrally located to several states, makes for an ideal location, Nemes says. The hotel’s owner, Joseph Hakim, is sponsoring many of the rooms, along with other donors.
Rabbi Yirmi Berkowitz at Lubavitch World Headquarters, from where rabbinical students were dispatched with a truckload of provisions for the Rosh Hashanah program, says, “Our efforts to help the Shluchim and the displaced members of their communities will continue as long as needed.”