By Larry Brook | Southern Jewish Life
For Brad Kessie, the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Gulfport, Miss., the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina “can come and go as quickly as possible.”
Mississippi’s only synagogue along the Gulf Coast will mark the anniversary at its Shabbat service Friday, Aug. 28. The first part of the service will be held at the congregation’s former location, the corner of Camellia Street and Southern Avenue in Biloxi, at 7 p.m., then proceed to the new location in Gulfport for the rest of the service and a special oneg.
While much of the focus of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is on New Orleans and the levee breach there, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast felt the brunt of the storm itself when it crashed ashore Aug. 29, 2005.
The storm brought a surge that flattened structures, often leaving a concrete slab as the only evidence buildings had been there. Casinos that had been built over the Gulf of Mexico were lifted and placed on what was left of the beach highway.
Beth Israel was two blocks from the beach. While the building still stood, much of the brick façade was peeled away, and water that flooded in made the building a moldy, unusable mess.
Thirteen Beth Israel families lost their homes in the storm. A Chabad team wandered the now-unmarked streets, using a community list from previous visits to make sure everyone in the community was accounted for and giving assistance as needed.
One month later, the congregation was able to hold Rosh Hashanah services at Keesler Air Force Base, the first services since the storm, with a rabbi and cantor supplied by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The congregation met at Beauvoir United Methodist Church until a new building — several miles inland in Gulfport — was completed in April 2009.
Katrina caused only minor damage at Temple B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg, though the congregation’s rabbi at the time, Celso Cukierkorn, described the city as looking like a war zone.
At the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, the storm damaged the camp dam, draining the lake. About 150 New Orleanians took refuge at the camp, and a week after the storm the Reform movement and the camp set up Jacobs Ladder, a warehouse for distributing relief aid throughout the region.
Kessie said Beth Israel, Mississippi’s only Conservative congregation, had about 65 members before Katrina. At the time of the 2009 dedication in Gulfport, there were about 45 members; currently about 50 families are members.
Many older members died soon after Katrina, losing some of the congregation’s institutional memory, but Kessie said Beth Israel has “more children at this point than we did before, which is exciting.”
The new building has many items rescued from the old building, including the Tree of Life, some of the stained glass windows and the Ten Commandments that hung over the entrance. “We have enough of the past sprinkled in that we haven’t lost too much of who we were,” Kessie said, “but at the same time we’re moving forward.”
After 10 years “everybody has been able to put their lives back together,” he said. “We don’t think much about Katrina anymore. It’s there. It’s always in our minds, but we don’t talk about it.”