For Rabbi Natan Trief, the devastation from floodwaters that hit the city of Baton Rouge in mid-August is hard to describe. Rabbi Trief, who spends two weeks a month in the Louisiana capital, said the area is a tale of two cities: The main roads appear as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened, but as you go farther into the city, the devastation is “mind-boggling.”
Now the city’s residents are trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. Around 90,000 homes in southern Louisiana flooded after more than 30 inches of rain fell in some areas within a few days.
“House after house vomited their possessions onto the curb,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same exact sight at every house. We ripped out all the Sheetrock and drywall since mold is a big danger. These relief efforts are going to last for months. We’ve dealt with many houses, but the majority of houses haven’t been addressed. Once mold sets in, it’s hard to get out.”
Rabbi Trief said about 10 percent of the members of Baton Rouge’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Reform congregation where he has served as rabbi since Aug. 1, sustained significant damage to their homes, losing anything from 6 inches above the floor to the entire first floor. As a whole, he said, around 11 percent of the city’s Jewish community sustained damage from the flood.
“One person had 5 feet of water come in,” Rabbi Trief said. “You could literally see the waterline when it receded. It reached the bottom of the kitchen cabinets. The hardest part for a new rabbi, apart from seeing the suffering and the devastation, is that so many Hebrew prayer books were destroyed. Obviously, that’s a small thing compared to the massive suffering, but it’s also significant.”
Beth Shalom, which was damaged during Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago but was spared the flooding, has been set up as a base of operations. Congregants have used the synagogue to cook meals for first responders and for people staying in shelters. It’s also being used as a drop-off point for donations.
“The community has rallied together,” Rabbi Trief said. “It’s inspiring. The Jewish community is small but really strong. I think because religion plays such a large role in other groups, I think it influences the Jewish community as well. One good consequence is that it really brings people together.”
When he’s not in Baton Rouge, Rabbi Trief is in Atlanta, where his wife, Samantha Shabman, is a new rabbi at Temple Sinai. They graduated from Hebrew Union College and were ordained in the spring.
That connection between the cities has benefited the relief efforts in Baton Rouge. Temple Sinai has raised thousands of dollars in gift cards for those affected by the flooding, and over Labor Day weekend Sinai is sending a group of youths and adults to help with the cleanup.
“Having my wife and the whole Temple Sinai community rallying around this has been fantastic,” Rabbi Trief said. “The Jewish community in Baton Rouge reaches out to Atlanta for help and guidance. Obviously, other Jewish communities have faced this, most notably New Orleans, so they’ve been helping out as well.”
Right now, donations of money and gift cards are the main ways people outside the area can help, he said. Tax-deductible donations may be made through the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
Gift cards can be sent to Beth Shalom Synagogue, 9111 Jefferson Hwy., Baton Rouge, LA 70809.
“I think we’re really worried about donor fatigue kicking in when the flood isn’t in the news any longer,” Rabbi Trief said. “We’re trying to lay the groundwork so people will” continue to donate.
Those wanting to travel to the area to help with the cleanup efforts can go through the Minnesota-based Nechama (www.nechama.org), a volunteer organization that provides natural disaster preparedness, response, and recovery services nationwide. Nechama arrived in Baton Rouge with a truck full of building supplies and with dozens of volunteers who mobilized the Jewish community to help rebuild homes.
They “have been like angels descending onto the community,” Rabbi Trief said.