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Hearing the Voices of Jewish Women Who Survived Hurricane Katrina

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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It has been four years since Hurricane Katrina hit with devastating and deadly force, killing at least 1,836 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and sending 1 million people away from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast into other parts of the country.

Four years later, while some areas have returned to regular life, according to this article, thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi are still living in trailers.

Much has been written about the ineffectual response and after effects of those terrible days – books like Douglas Brinkley’s “The Great Deluge” and Jed Horne’s “Breach of Faith.”

The Jewish Women’s Archive, in collaboration with the Center for History and New Media has focused on Jewish voices, collecting stories and artifacts from Jews, both women and men, whose lives were altered. Their stories can be read here.

The JWA’s blog Jewesses With Attitude has highlighted the project to mark the 4th anniversary here.

In her post, Jayne Guberman, project director of Katrina’s Jewish Voices, notes the prominent role women played in the leadership of synagogues and Jewish communal organizations in New Orleans:

Four years ago today, the world was transfixed as images of Hurricane Katrina roared across our television screens and the horrifying stories of people stranded and lost flooded our inboxes, websites, and, it seemed, every news outlet in the country. Certainly at the Jewish Women’s Archive, we were transfixed.

So, is there a women’s story about the Jewish community’s experiences of Katrina? To me it was stunning to note that, at the turn of the 21st century, we didn’t need to look to women’s organizations to find out how women were responding to the disaster.

In fact, women were involved in leadership positions at every level in the community. For example, when Katrina struck New Orleans, all of the synagogues had female presidents, including Beth Israel, the only modern orthodox Jewish congregation in the Deep South. The heads of the Jewish Family Service, the New Orleans Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Endowment Foundation – all women. And the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, who played such a critical role in getting stranded Jews out of New Orleans and resettled in Baton Rouge, was Rabbi Martha Bergadine.

One of the many compelling stories in the collection is that of Helen Zerlin Sperling. She had to evacuate her home in New Orleans at age 76, with friends, a couple in their 80s, who were Holocaust survivors. Read Helen’s story here. On their way out of New Orleans, when they had to stop for the night, they found respite with a Jewish couple – total strangers – who they found by calling a local synagogue.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Forward contributing editor and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001)


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