When 26 students trickled back into Chabad-Lubavitch of New Orleans’s Torah Academy on January 5, the only thing that looked familiar was the school building and the smiling faces of their teachers. Everything else had been washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
The only Jewish day school in the New Orleans area to reopen since the devatstion, Torah Academy is still working to replace desks, textbooks, workbooks, computers, art supplies and the entire school library. “I went to get lettering for a bulletin board, but that is gone, too,” said Chabad of New Orleans representative Bluma Rivkin, who teaches at the school.
Reopening was of paramount importance for the well being of the students and their families, according to Rivkin. Since Katrina, many families have been separated. Fathers have returned to New Orleans for work while mothers and children stay in other states to attend Jewish schools. “Separation is not good for the health of a family,” said Rivkin.
Even though returning students had been attending out-of-state schools with better facilities, they walked the halls with an air of “home sweet home,” said Rivkin. Students felt comfortable sharing their experiences among others who had lost everything: their homes, clothing, toys and photo albums in the hurricane.
From creative writing compositions to classes on the weekly Torah portion, Katrina experiences kept creeping up in the children’s work. Middle schoolers sketched posters of “Heroes of Katrina.” Younger children experimented with water and observed water could wash away shoes, clothing, even a Torah scroll, but it could not wash away kindnes, good deeds and the effect of charity. The older children analyzed the Torah portion that discusses Joseph reunion with his brothers. In it, Joseph comforts his brothers, telling them he is not angry with them for selling him into servitude because it was part of a larger, unfathomable masterplan. Rivkin’s students found poignant relevance in the biblical theme.
Not everyone has come back. The 26 students who returned are less than half of the school’s initial student body population. Nor is the school completely ready. Tiling, flooring and some light fixtures are among the structural issues still requiring attention. Construction workers are in demand everywhere in New Orleans. “If we waited until everything was perfect, we wouldn’t have a school, we wouldn’t have a city,” said Rivkin. Torah Academy was able to open because of Chabad on Campus and Ramaz volunteers who painted and cleaned over their own winter break.
Streams of help have come unbidden from unexpected quarters. New backpacks stuffed with snacks arrived from Jews in West Harford, CT. A family in Chicago sent gift certificates toward the purchase of Jewish books, which were distributed to families who lost their homes and everything in them. Four boxes of new clothing were snapped up by returning New Orleanians. Last week, six boxes filled with brand new shoes arrived from Vida’s Gallery in Reseda, CA.
Roberta Rosenthal of Encino, CA, had been browsing among the sparkly purses and scarves at Vida’s with her daughter and grandson, when Vida Shemtaub asked if Rosenthal had “any idea where she could donate 100 pairs of shoes. I said, ‘Let me call my rabbi.’” The rabbi, Chabad of the Valley executive director Joshua Gordon, is Bluma Rivkin’s brother.
When shoestore owner, Shervin Shemtaub found out that New Orleans could use the shoes, he was happy to pack them up. “We decided we want to give back and help out, especially with the situation as it is over there,” he said.
To complete the mitzvah, Rosenthal paid for the shipping. “I have a very fortunate life. When I was a kid, I had so many toys we’d give them away in a refrigerator box. I like to give back,” she said. “It’s nice to give a check, but I get more joy out of giving physical things.”
New Orleans Chabad representatives are brainstorming for ways to distribute the shoes in an orderly fashion, but Rivkin is certain they will be appreciated. Having more than the one pair of shoes worn during evacuation is a sign that life is getting back to normal. News reports after Katrina highlighted the plight of the impoverished, but neglected “the middle class whose lives went crazy, too,” said Rivkin. “They are thrilled to have the pleasure of a few new fresh things.”
Rebuilding a school and community in a city where everyone has been beaten down by the same storm is a daunting task. Reopening the school was “emotionally encouraging,” said Rivkin, who is carrying on with the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, in mind. “The Rebbe told us, ‘think good and it will be good.’”