By Dave Schechter / email@example.com
A decade ago, Jeffrey “Jake” Schwartz and his wife, Susan Levitas, then both 43 years old, had busy lives in New Orleans.
Levitas was a folklorist-turned-documentary film producer (including the 2003 release “Shalom Y’all,” about Jewish life in the South) and voiceover artist. She also was three months pregnant.
Schwartz, a specialist in labor and employment law, was preparing a case for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the boards of local Jewish organizations. His daughter, Cydney, was preparing for her bat mitzvah celebration.
George Fuhrman was head of the surgical residency program at Ochsner Clinic, a hospital near New Orleans. Fuhrman and wife Laura and their three daughters, Sarah, Melissa and Allison, were members of Conservative Congregation Shir Chadash, and the girls attended the Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans, both affiliations shared with the Schwartz-Levitas household. Likewise, the Fuhrmans were preparing for Melissa’s bat mitzvah that fall.
Jack and Annette Rau were approaching their 62nd birthdays and beginning to think about the next phase of their lives. Jack was the third generation of his family to operate M.S. Rau Antiques on Royal Street, a French Quarter fixture since 1912. Annette served on the boards of Jewish communal groups, including one with Jake Schwartz.
Mark Merlin, a 38-year-old New Orleans native, was a radiation oncologist in practice with his father. Mickie Merlin, 37, was an at-home mom looking after Zachary, a third-grader, and Raye Claire, a kindergartner about to turn 6.
Hurricane Katrina was churning in the Gulf of Mexico. When the storm came ashore and the levees failed, most of the city was flooded. The home addresses of these four families changed in the days and weeks that followed, and they became part of the significant community of Jewish former New Orleanians living in Atlanta.
Ten years ago, the Atlanta Jewish Times told the story of Cydney’s bat mitzvah: how she had learned her haftorah, how her dresses for synagogue and party were ready, and how at 5 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, she fled with her father and stepmother the day before Katrina made landfall.
The family came to Atlanta and the Toco Hills home of Levitas’ parents, former Congressman Elliott and Barbara Levitas. Back in New Orleans, 6 to 8 feet of water filled the Schwartz home, destroying the first floor, filled with memorabilia and photos.
Schwartz was grateful for the refuge. “It almost goes without saying how much we have appreciated Atlanta’s outstretched arms and welcoming us in,” he said a decade ago.
When it became clear that a near-term return to New Orleans was out of the question, Barbara Levitas placed a phone call to Rabbi Neil Sandler at Ahavath Achim Synagogue and set in motion a plan to save the bat mitzvah.
Arrangements were made for Cydney’s service to be held Sept. 17 in the small chapel at Ahavath Achim. Jewish geography added to the day. One of the two girls become b’not mitzvah in the main sanctuary was the daughter of the woman with whom Susan Levitas had shared her own bat mitzvah in 1974. The other girl was a cousin. The Levitases had relatives in common with both of those families.
Cydney’s rabbi from New Orleans, who also had evacuated to Atlanta, conducted the service. Relatives went between the Kiddushes afterward. An Atlanta company donated its services so that Cydney would have a party. Cydney’s mother, who had escaped Katrina to Texas, recovered the dresses and brought them from New Orleans. The bat mitzvah kippot were shipped to Atlanta from Schwartz’s law office.
A decade later, Levitas combines Jewish communal projects with her professional life. Schwartz’s law practice has expanded. Schwartz’s law practice has expanded. Annie, born in Atlanta six months after Hurricane Katrina, is an active 9½-year-old.
After the move to Atlanta, Cydney, now 23 and studying art direction at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, enrolled at the Epstein School in Sandy Springs, where her classmates included a couple of familiar faces from New Orleans, Melissa and Allison Fuhrman, whose older sister, Sarah, entered the Weber School.
The Fuhrmans joined Congregation Beth Shalom, where Melissa’s relocated bat mitzvah celebration was held in the fall of 2005.
“I think that Atlanta provided consistency, and there were good opportunities here for our family, both Jewishly and secularly,” Melissa Fuhrman said. As a result, from mid-September 2005 until the summer of 2006, George Fuhrman worked at Ochsner while maintaining a home in Atlanta.
Only after youngest daughter Allison followed her sisters and graduated in 2012 from Weber did George and Laura Fuhrman move back to Old Metairie within a half-mile of their old home, and George returned to Ochsner.
Their oldest daughter, Sarah, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and remained in New York to work in the fashion industry. Allison is on track to graduate from the University of Texas in May with a degree in bilingual education.
Middle sister Melissa, meanwhile, returned to Atlanta this summer after graduating in May from the University of Maryland, where she majored in Jewish studies. Living in Buckhead, she works as a fellow in Midtown with the Schusterman Family Foundation, which works with young people to ensure a strong Jewish future.
Melissa Fuhrman sees herself as both a New Orleanian and an Atlantan. “Even though it felt uncertain at the time, I think it gave me two really great communities,” she said. “I sort of feel like I have two homes, two communities, two peoples behind me. I think that it gave me really great opportunities.”
In January 2006, Atlanta also became the home of one of Jake Schwartz’s colleagues on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
Annette Rau said that if Katrina had never happened, she and Jack, the parents of Rabbi Steven Rau of The Temple, probably would have remained in New Orleans. The storm and the devastation that followed made the decision about the next phase of their life easier.
They had grown tired of the annual hurricane threat. Storms had forced them away from New Orleans and to their daughter’s home in Waco, Texas, during the High Holidays in 2003 and 2004. Katrina was the proverbial last straw.
Jack worked at the antiques store until 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27. The Raus then left for Waco, planning to return in a few days.
“We were in the family business, so he had no real idea of retiring,” Annette said. After the storm hit and the levees failed, “we retired within 24 hours of Katrina.”
The business remains in family hands.
The Raus lived close to their synagogue, Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation dating to 1857.
When the levees failed, Beth Israel, located in the Lakeview area near Lake Pontchartrain, suffered flooding more than 8 feet deep. The water destroyed seven Torahs and more than 3,000 prayer books.
The Raus’ home, just blocks from Beth Israel, also flooded.
The Raus, married for 50 years, now live in Dunwoody, a few miles from their son and his wife and their five children. They chose Atlanta rather than Waco for size and opportunities in the Jewish community.
“At that time, a lot of our friends were doing the same thing, going where their children are, leaving New Orleans after this storm,” Annette Rau said. “People our age, 60 and over, were the ones who made the mass exodus from New Orleans.”
They thought they might join an Orthodox congregation but felt welcomed at The Temple, the Reform congregation where their son has been the director of lifelong learning since 2002.
“You miss the camaraderie of the city,” Annette Rau said of New Orleans. “You miss the friends you made over the years. They’ve all scattered. You leave a community, and you build a life somewhere else. You keep going. Atlanta was a very welcoming community. You have everything right here.”
They keep in touch with family and friends in New Orleans and visit every three or four months. A number of their friends relocated to Atlanta, and the ex-New Orleans Jews stay in touch and get together frequently.
Katrina’s approach wasn’t on the radar for the Merlins. Mark had patients needing his attention. Friday, Aug. 26, was Raye Claire’s sixth birthday party with her school friends, and Mickie heard little talk about the storm. The Merlins recently had written a check to an architect to begin renovations on their home in the Lakewood area, near Lake Pontchartrain.
Mickie was out to lunch when a girlfriend whose husband worked at the Weather Channel called and told her to get out of New Orleans. Mickie called Mark, and they headed out Saturday, taking enough clothing for a long weekend. Their destination choices were Chattanooga, where Mickie’s mother lived, and Atlanta, where Mickie’s sister had a house with a yard to accommodate the Merlins’ three dogs.
On Monday, Aug. 29, Mickie’s brother-in-law was watching television and told her that some of the levees had failed and New Orleans was flooded. Mickie saw video of people sitting on a rail bridge with their feet dangling in the water. She recognized the bridge and knew her neighborhood was underwater.
The Merlins are University of Georgia graduates, and he did his residency at the Medical College of Georgia. He quickly joined Radiotherapy Clinics of Georgia so that he could stay active professionally. The children enrolled at the Davis Academy.
When they returned to New Orleans to check on their home — as a doctor, Mark could enter closed-off areas — they found the first floor of their two-story home flooded and the entire structure mold-infested. They salvaged what they could and returned to Atlanta.
“To me, the silver lining in the whole Katrina thing was I finally got to move to Atlanta, where I always wanted to live because my family is here. … It was a homecoming of a bit. It felt very natural,” Mickie said recently, recalling that she attended Camp Barney Medintz as a girl.
After the Davis Academy, Zachary graduated from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and now attends the University of South Carolina. Raye Claire is in high school at Mount Vernon. Mark, whose parents and extended family remain in New Orleans, turned his work with Radiotherapy Clinics of Georgia into a full-time position.
Annette Rau had been president of the New Orleans chapter of Hadassah, was set to become vice president of Federation and was active in Israel Bonds campaigns. Jake Schwartz was the president of the New Orleans Jewish Community Center board of directors and served on the executive boards of Federation and the South Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League.
Annette Rau saw Schwartz at the Marcus JCC not long after moving to Atlanta. “We were big fish in a small pond” in New Orleans’ Jewish community, about one-twelfth the size of Atlanta’s 10 years ago, she recalled saying to him. “Now we’re small fish in a big pond.”
For Schwartz, the damage from the storm and the hospitality in Atlanta were enough to make the move permanent.
“While my wife, Susan, and I both have a tremendous attachment to New Orleans, neither of us were from there, and we had no family living in New Orleans,” he said. “My wife is an Atlanta native going back several generations on both sides, and we have truly benefited by having family nearby.”
Levitas measures the past decade by Annie’s growth. “I recall her baby naming at Shearith Israel,” she said. “I brought three jars of water: one represented the Mississippi River in New Orleans (the place she was supposed to be born); one was the Chattahoochee River (her new home and the home of her large extended family); and the third represented the Jordan River (the river of her Jewish homeland). I also talked about the three rivers of Pittsburgh, Jake’s hometown, that course through that city. Rivers and water were on my mind quite a bit back then.”
Annie attends Paideia, the school her mother attended. “My father co-signed the loan for the school, and we were there the day the doors opened in 1971,” Levitas said.
On Sundays, Annie goes to the Levitases’ for lunch and a game of cards.
“Cydney and Annie have grown up with their extended family here. We had no family on either side in New Orleans. This is the best thing that has come of our lives in Atlanta,” Susan Levitas said.
On the communal side, Levitas is the president of the board of Jewish Kids Groups, an independent, “ridiculously cool” Hebrew school with two sites in Atlanta and more planned. She also served on the board of Rebecca’s Tent, the women’s shelter that was started by Congregation Shearith Israel and was a center for post-Katrina relief efforts.
“I miss New Orleans in a quiet, background sort of way. It’s in my heart,” Levitas said. “My cellphone number is the same, with the 504 area code. I love seeing that and feeling that tiny tether to my old home place. It’s a small but proud reminder of my former life. It makes me feel like I still belong.”
Schwartz joined the Atlanta office of the national law firm Jackson Lewis, which opened a New Orleans branch, allowing him to maintain his clients there. He won the case he argued (with his very pregnant wife in attendance) in January 2006 before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Professionally, my transition to Atlanta has been a high mark of my career,” he said. “I have benefited greatly by the larger business community and have been blessed to come into contact with many friends who also now have become clients.”
Schwartz has the feeling of being, if not an Atlantan, at least settled in Atlanta. “For several years, when I would travel back to New Orleans, I would always lament that but for my family’s connection to Atlanta, I would come back to New Orleans,” he said. “In the last couple of years, that has changed, and I came to realize that I am also now connected to Atlanta. … I have really come to appreciate what Atlanta offers Jewishly. Shearith Israel has really welcomed us, and I have created meaningful relationships there. We also attend Limmud at Ramah Darom each Labor Day. All in all, it is hard for me to say what life would have been like had the storm never occurred, but I can say we are now at home in Atlanta.”
Well, almost all of him is at home in Atlanta. Schwartz is still looking for a barber to replace his favorite shop, Aidan Gill for Men, on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Like his wife, he still has a 504 area code on his cellphone.
And you can take the Pittsburgh boy (and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh law school) out of Pittsburgh and transplant him in New Orleans and replant him in Atlanta, but certain allegiances cannot be broken, particularly when it comes to professional football. “The Steelers are No. 1, the Saints are No. 2, and I have no interest in the Falcons,” Schwartz said. “I will say, however, that I have become a Hawks fan.”
Michael Jacobs contributed to this report.