By Yaacov Noah Gothard
Myron Goldberg, a recent president of New Orleans’ Congregation Beth Israel whose Uptown New Orleans home was flooded and whose clothing business had been looted, was one of dozens of Hurricane Katrina evacuees attending a meeting at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody one week after the storm made landfall Aug. 29, 2005.
“All of the agencies and services from Atlanta were there,” Goldberg said. “After all the presentations were made, they asked if we needed anything or had any questions. We just sat there. The local rabbi that was there got up and said, ‘You are all in denial. You are in shock, and you are in denial. All of your life you have been givers, and now you are receivers, and you don’t know how to ask.’ He was 100 percent correct. We were in shock. We didn’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, Beth Israel President Jackie Gothard was going to sleep in her son Sander’s home in Dallas, praying to G-d to prevent the unthinkable. “We knew about the breaks in the levee, and we knew that we had water in the shul. I would go to sleep at night praying that the Torah scrolls were above the flood level.”
Jackie’s husband, former Beth Israel board member Judge Sol Gothard, said, “We couldn’t come back home for three weeks because there was no power, no working gas stations, no open grocery stores or restaurants, and the city was in a state of emergency.”
When residents returned, Jackie Gothard and fellow congregant Jacob Kansas found destruction at the shul. Gothard said: “The glass walls on either side of the front doors had been crashed down by the floodwaters that had risen 8.5 feet. Big tree branches were in the building. All the prayer books and tallisim were on the floor, covered with mud. The massive bimah had floated 8 feet up and had come to rest on top of the benches in the women’s section. Black and white mold was growing everywhere.”
The seven Torahs, some as old as the 101-year-old synagogue, were ruined despite the effort of ZAKA’s Rabbi Isaac Leder, who had entered the shul in a motorized raft days after the storm.
The $2 million building and its contents, however, were not the only losses. “We also lost our rabbi, who relocated to New Jersey after the storm as he had no place to live,” Sol Gothard said. “We lost between 30 and 40 percent of our membership at that time. So I thought, ‘How can this shul possibly survive? How can it possibly exist with extremely diminished membership, no building, no rabbinical residence, no rabbi, no Torahs, yarmulkes, prayer books or tallisim? No income? A few months before the storm, we had just spent $175,000 on a new air-conditioning system.”
“It was kind of a triage,” Jacob Kansas’ son Alan, a lawyer, said of his first few days back in the city. “I had lost my house, my family was living in a rental house in Houston, and it wasn’t just about the shul. Everyone had their own Katrina saga that they were in the middle of.”
“Once I knew that I and my family were safe and our homes were intact, I could concentrate on seeing what it would take to keep Beth Israel alive,” Jackie Gothard said. “Do we sell the property, fold up as a congregation, let our 100-year-old Beth Israel go with the flow? A few said yes. But those of us whose grandparents and parents were the founding members of Beth Israel said no. I did not want to be remembered as the first female president and last president of our beloved congregation. After Rosh Hashanah at Conservative Shir Chadash, we decided that we wanted a Beth Israel Yom Kippur. We had nine days to work on it.”
On Oct. 13, 50 of the 400 shul members gathered in the lobby of a Comfort Suites on land purchased seven years earlier from Sol Gothard, which the judge had bought with his father-in-law, Ralph Pressner, 30 years before. “Do you think my dad is smiling down on us as we observe Yom Kippur as a Beth Israel congregation on land he once owned?” Jackie Gothard asked the congregation. “The way he loved his shul, I certainly think so.”
Eddie Gothard, the only one of five Gothard siblings still living in New Orleans, “had put a box of Kleenex at the end of every other aisle. He was singing Kol Nidre. We were coping. We were trying to pray,” said Goldberg, who made it back from Atlanta in time for the holidays. “My 25-year-old son, Aaron, came with me on Kol Nidre, and he couldn’t come back the next day. It was too hard on him.”
Almost 80 congregants did show up for Yom Kippur day.
“We were all quite fragile and grateful to see each other,” said Debra Namias, a congregation member and social worker.
“I was on the road. I was out 10 months and homeless. I used friends, family and faith to cope. G-d was the basis of everything. G-d played a role in this. There was a purpose in it, and G-d had a place for me,” she said. The Yom Kippur services “gave us confirmation and hope that we would come through this, and we did.”
Three Yeshiva University students led services with a borrowed Torah and donated prayer books. Local historian Irwin Lachoff, whose father, beloved gabbai Meyer Lachoff, had died in a nursing home two days after Katrina, assumed his father’s role.
Jackie Gothard delivered the sermon while standing amid the few items salvaged from the synagogue (three brass menorahs, a few yads and a bimah cover), in front of a mechitzah made from sand-filled Home Depot buckets, broomsticks and hotel bedsheets, and with the aroma of waffles and bacon drifting in from the hotel breakfast buffet.
“No rabbi in the world could have given that drash at that point in time at that particular place,” her husband said. “Men are supposed to be a little tougher, and I am not prone to crying so quickly, but this got to me as no other sermon I had ever heard in my life. … Logically, there was no way in the world that this synagogue could continue to exist. It was not possible, but she made it possible. She willed Beth Israel to exist.”
Jackie Gothard said Yom Kippur made her realize Beth Israel could survive. “I said in my sermon that two weeks after Katrina we read in our synagogues, according to the prophet Isaiah, this promise from G-d: ‘I have sworn that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth.’ G-d promised never again to destroy the whole world by flood. Would we dare to say that the floodwaters destroyed our whole world? Of course there is heartbreak and sadness and loss of family treasures, but our whole worlds are not our furniture, our roofs, our businesses, our cars, our clothes. Those are only parts of our whole world. The important components of our world are each other — our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our community — and our relationship with our G-d.”
Her sermon noted some of the many disasters Jews have overcome, from the destruction of the Temples to the Holocaust, and she concluded that if the Jewish people could survive those disasters, Beth Israel could come back from Katrina’s floodwaters.
“Listening to the story Jackie told was heart-rending. We had our lives. We had to rebuild with what we had,” Goldberg said.
“The storm was a wake-up call so the synagogue would survive,” lifetime member Dr. Hilton Title said. “A synagogue is the people who make it what it is. The leadership was the guiding light. I think it was the outreach by the Jewish community, nationally and internationally, the outpouring of support, that gave our synagogue a flame, a catalyst, to survive.”
You can read the full sermon at bethisraelnola.com/wp-content/uploads/Presidents_Message_2005.pdf.
Three synagogues offered to house Beth Israel, which accepted the offer from the Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer, located in Metairie within a half-mile of Congregation Shir Chadash, Chabad of Metairie and the JCC/Federation complex. “We are as liberal as an Orthodox congregation can be, and Gates of Prayer is as traditional as a Reform congregation can be, so it was a natural shidduch,” Sol Gothard said. “Their rabbi, Bob Loewy, was also our champion in Federation, as Beth Israel suffered more financial and infrastructure loss than all the other synagogues combined. I asked him, ‘Bob, why are you so good to us?’ and he said, ‘Because this community needs you.’ ”
Two years after the storm, the Orthodox Union sent down three rabbinical candidates at Beth Israel’s request. The synagogue chose Rabbi Uri Topolosky, whose wife, Dahlia, said: “On our first visit to New Orleans together, Uri and I looked at the Hebrew quote on the front of the ruined shul: ‘They shall make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.’ We were both thinking the same thing: This was the quote we had chosen to write on our wedding invitation as a prayer for our own lives — our hope to also build a home where G-d’s presence might dwell. And here we were standing in front of Beth Israel, staring at these same words, and I said, ‘Uri, it’s beshert. This is where we were meant to be.’ ”
Rabbi David Posternock, whom the synagogue hired as its administrator in 2008, said he also felt a higher calling. “I actually saw the job posting on Valentine’s Day, and it was 2:14 p.m. on Feb. 14, so I looked up Genesis Chapter 2, Verse 14, and it talked about the Garden of Eden. To this day I am convinced that G-d sent me to my Garden of Eden. I walked onto New Orleans soil, I smelled the air, and it felt like home.”
Dahlia Topolosky said: “I was never in a city where there was such a unity of culture and music and spirit. I was never in a city where people loved their city so much. In our shul there was a sense of intergenerational relationship, and I felt as close with people in their 90s as with the young people moving into town. You felt a real sense of family.”
“To use Rabbi Uri’s favorite word, he was unbelievable,” Jackie Gothard said. “He went all over the country getting financial support. New members started joining. Congregants became more involved. He was charismatic. Uri stayed with us until the new synagogue was built, which was his goal.”
Rabbi Topolosky said: “One of the things I did was I focused a lot on community collaboration, so that we could be part of the communitywide growth. New Orleans has a unique spiritual quality, the Carnival, that carries over to synagogue life. That positive energy has a wonderful impact on spirituality. You can point to the tireless devotion of Jackie Gothard. You can appreciate the dedication of Eddie Gothard and Richard Katz to make sure that the synagogue would be financially viable long term and that we’d have a beautiful sanctuary to walk into.”
Eddie Gothard and Alexander Barkoff served as the synagogue construction committee co-chairmen.
On Aug. 26, 2012, almost seven years to the day after the storm, over 400 congregants, guests and dignitaries followed an all-female, African-American brass band as five Torahs given by communities across the nation were danced from Gates of Prayer to the stunning new sanctuary next door on land bought from the Reform congregation.
“There were hundreds of people from all over the community, all over the country, people who hadn’t been back since the storm, people who had left before the storm and hadn’t seen each other in 20 years,” Rabbi Posternock said. “The horns were blazing inside the new sanctuary. You couldn’t hear yourself think. It was inspiring to feel such love. It was incredible.”
In 2014, a year after the Topoloskys moved to assume the leadership of Beth Joshua Congregation in Rockville, Md., Beth Israel lured Rabbi Gabe Greenberg from the directorship of the University of California-Berkeley Hillel.
“The first weekend I came down to visit the shul, they took me out to eat some beignets after Shabbat, and I since inherited the job of ensuring the kosher status of three Café du Monde locations in Metairie and the French Quarter,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “There are two Jewish Mardi Gras crews, Krewe du Jieux and Krewe du Mishigas. Every week we sing Adon Olam to ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ One of the kosher restaurants made king cakes this year, and we’ve got two more kosher eateries opening soon. It is really sweet living in Metairie and walking to a parade on our street within the eruv on Shabbat.”
He added: “Seeing how the community is growing makes me feel that we are part of a rich, dynamic history that has gone through significant changes for hundreds of years, Katrina being just one of them, and that will continue to change and grow in the future.”
“The storm undoubtedly finished off our shul, but it paved the way for the rebirth of a smaller, brand-new edifice that reflected the current smaller, revitalized membership,” Sol Gothard said. “The New Orleans Jewish community is back up from 7,000 to over 10,000. Young Orthodox Jews are coming to town with Avodah and Teach for America. The economy is thriving, and all of our shuls are growing.”
“The synagogue that had been drowned came back to life,” Rabbi Posternock said. “The quote engraved in wood over our ark from King Solomon’s Song of Songs says, ‘Mighty waters cannot extinguish our love.’ We were in a building committee meeting, talking about carpets and paint for our new edifice, and Uri came up with the pasuk. Everyone went quiet. Everybody in the meeting cried. Some sobbed. It was one of the best moments in my life. When moments like that happen, they are never by accident. G-d allowed us to be in that moment with the perfect description to tell our story. If Katrina, one of the worst storms that ever hit this town, couldn’t destroy us, then nothing can.”
Yaacov Noah Gothard, the president of CareerPro Resumes in Sandy Springs, is the son of Jackie and Sol Gothard.