Congregation Beth Israel (New Orleans)
Beth Israel building on Canal Boulevard in 2010, gutted and
New Orleans, Louisiana,
|Leadership||Rabbi: Uri Topolsky|
Congregation Beth Israel (Hebrew: בית ישראל) is a Modern Orthodox synagogue located in Louisiana. Founded in 1903 or 1904, though tracing its roots back to 1857, it is the oldest Orthodox congregation in the New Orleans region. Originally located on Carondelet Street in New Orleans' Central City, it constructed and moved to a building at 7000 Canal Boulevard in Lakeview, New Orleans in 1971.
At one time the largest Orthodox congregation in the Southern United States, its membership was over 500 families in the 1960s, but fell to under 200 by 2005. That year its Canal Boulevard building was severely flooded by the 2005 New Orleans levee failure disaster during Hurricane Katrina. Despite attempts to save them, all seven of its Torah scrolls were destroyed, as were over 3,000 prayer-books. The building suffered further flooding damage caused by the theft of copper air-conditioning tubing in 2007.
In the wake of Katrina another 50 member families left New Orleans, including the rabbi's. The congregation began sharing space with Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. By 2009, the congregation had purchased land from Gates of Prayer, and intended to build a new synagogue next to it.
Beth Israel is the oldest Orthodox congregation in the New Orleans region, and its most prominent. Though it was founded as early as 1903, it traces its roots back to much older synagogues. In the mid-19th century New Orleans had a number of small Orthodox congregations of Eastern European Jews, generally "structured along nationalistic lines". These included a synagogue of Galitzianer Jews (Chevra Thilim), and two of Lithuanian Jews, (one—Chevra Mikve Israel—following the non-Hassidic liturgy, the other—Anshe Sfard—following the Hassidic liturgy). In 1857, a congregation consisting primarily of Prussian Jews from Posen organized as Tememe Derech, "The Right Way". As they followed the Polish rite, they were known as "The Polish Congregation".
Tememe Derech built a synagogue in the 500 block of Carondelet Street in the Central City section of New Orleans in 1867. It was the sole Orthodox congregation to construct its own building; only a minority of New Orleans' Jews were Orthodox, and other congregations rented space or met in members' homes. Tememe Derech's membership, however, never exceeded 50, and in 1903 or 1904 the synagogue disbanded, and merged with a number of other small Orthodox congregations and a burial society to form Beth Israel. Services were initially held in rented quarters in the same 500 block of Carondelet Street.
In 1905, Beth Israel purchased the home of New Orleans' former mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare at 1610 Carondelet Street. Funds for the new acquisition came from both the Orthodox and Reform communities of New Orleans. After remodeling the building, the congregation began holding services there, in time for the 1906 High Holy Days. Membership grew quickly; by 1910 Beth Israel was the second-largest Jewish congregation in the city, with 180 member families, and by 1914 that number had grown to 250 families. By 1918, however, membership had fallen to 175 families. That year the synagogues income was $6,000 (today $92,000).
Beth Israel rebuilt its synagogue at the Carondelet Street location in 1924. The new building was designed by Emil Weil, a noted Southern architect, particularly of Jewish religious buildings. He designed other New Orleans' synagogues, including the Touro Synagogue and the Anshe Sfard, as well as other non-religious buildings throughout Louisiana. Beth Israel's new Byzantine Revival building, with its seating capacity of 1,200, reflected "the growing economic and social confidence of the membership": it had "beautiful" stained-glass windows, a "magnificent" imported European chandelier, and "hand-carved Stars of David in the ceiling". The building was dedicated on September 12, and a Boston rabbi, Henry Raphael Gold, was a guest speaker. He was so impressed that he stayed on, becoming Beth Israel's rabbi.
In 1926 Beth Israel built the "Menorah Institute" Talmud Torah building on Euterpe Street, adjoining the Carondelet synagogue. The school, which served as an Orthodox alternative to the existing Communal Hebrew School, comprised a nursery school, a Hebrew school, and a Sunday school. The building also housed Beth Israel's offices, and the "Little Shul" ("shul" is the Yiddish word for synagogue), where services were held twice a day.
The congregation leased land for burials in the Chevra Thilim Cemetery on Canal Street, a site that had been used by Tememe Derech as early as 1860, and which was shared with several other congregations. In the 1930s Beth Israel purchased its own cemetery on Frenchmen Street.
Uri Miller joined Beth Israel as rabbi in 1935, a post he would hold through the early 1940s. He was president of the Hebrew Theological College Alumni from 1936 to 1938, and of its successor the Rabbinical Council of America from 1946 to 1948.
During Miller's tenure the synagogue's neighborhood began to deteriorate. Members started moving uptown, and the congregation embarked on a search for a new location. In 1963 Beth Israel purchased a block of land at 7000 Canal Boulevard at Walker Street in the Lakeview neighborhood. It moved into its new larger building there in 1971.
From 1914 through World War II Beth Israel described itself the "largest Orthodox congregation in the South", and in the 1960s it had 500 member families. By 2005, however, that number had been reduced to fewer than 200. Nevertheless, Beth Israel still held services twice a day, the only synagogue in New Orleans to do so.
Hurricane Katrina and aftermath 
As a result of the Federal levee failure disaster, the congregation's building at 7000 Canal Boulevard filled with at least ten feet of water, and Beth Israel garnered national attention after attempts were made to save its Torah scrolls. Beth Israel's rabbi, Yisroel Shiff, who had evacuated to Tennessee before Katrina hit, contacted Rabbi Isaac Leider, who had worked on ZAKA search-and-rescue teams in Israel for five years. After contacting federal officials and the Louisiana National Guard, Leider hired a helicopter to fly him to within a mile of Beth Israel, met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) search-and-rescue team appointed to retrieve the scrolls. The group used rubber rafts to reach Beth Israel and enter it, where Leider waded into the sanctuary and rescued the Torah scrolls and their silver ornaments.
Despite Leider's efforts, all seven Torah scrolls were unsalvageable, and had to be buried. They had initially been buried in her backyard by Rebecca Heggelund, Beth Israel's non-Jewish secretary, who first received them after their rescue, and were subsequently re-buried next to the grave of Beth Israel's gabbai Meyer Lachoff. Lachoff had died just after Katrina, but could not be buried in New Orleans until months later.
In addition to losing all of its Torah scrolls, Beth Israel lost all its furniture, and over 3,000 siddurs and mahzors, and almost all of its members' homes were flooded, forcing them to move. The congregation did, however, receive assistance in replacing some of its assets; the Orthodox Union immediately sent Beth Israel 50 ArtScroll siddurs, and Brith Shalom Beth Israel Congregation of Charleston, South Carolina, and Congregation Shaare Zedek Sons of Abraham of Providence, Rhode Island each donated Torahs. Hayley Fields, a 14-year-old from Los Angeles, heard of Beth Israel's difficult circumstances, and with the support of her mother, spearheaded a fund-raising drive, selling 3,500 watches. $18,000 was ultimately raised to buy a Torah, which was dedicated in August, 2006, two days before the first anniversary of the hurricane. At that ceremony the National Council of Young Israel also donated 150 new Artscoll mahzors, in time for the High Holy Days.
In the wake of Katrina 50 families that were members of Beth Israel left New Orleans, and gave up membership in the congregation. These included Rabbi Schiff and his family. After the flood Beth Israel's board of directors informed Schiff, who had joined they synagogue in April 2002, that it would not be able to meet its contractual obligations and pay him past December. Schiff and his family had also lost their home and much of their possessions, and had been living in Memphis. Schiff resigned effective November 1, 2005, citing this loss, and the lack of a functioning Jewish Day School in the area for his children.
Soon after the flood, Beth Israel received an offer to temporarily use space from Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The congregation began holding weekly services and renting office space there.
In 2006 it was unclear if Beth Israel, which had already been in difficult financial shape, would be allowed, or have the means, to re-build its synagogue. The building suffered further flood damage in July 2007 when thieves stole the copper tubing for the main air-conditioning system. They broke the water main, and water from the second floor flooded the building for three days, to a depth of three to four feet, before it was discovered. The property was put up for sale.
Recent events 
In 2007, the congregation began some joint programming with Anshe Sefard, New Orlean's only other remaining Orthodox synagogue, and in the summer hired Uri Topolsky as its new rabbi. A graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Topolsky had previously served as the associate rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and had been one of 21 rabbis arrested at the United Nations during an April 2007 sit-in demanding that Iran be expelled from the U.N.
To help attract new members, in the summer Topolsky started a recruitment campaign, placing an advertisement in the New York newspaper The Jewish Week, and re-designing Beth Israel's website. The campaign's tagline was "If you believe in the ability to destroy, you can believe in the ability to rebuild", a saying of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and by the end of October ten new members had joined. However, while all New Orleans synagogues lost membership after Katrina, as of 2007, Beth Israel was the only New Orleans synagogue that had not re-opened in its former location.
Topolsky and Gates of Prayer's rabbi Robert Loewy also began learning together on Fridays, and the two congregations started scheduling joint programs. Though these programs were generally secular in nature (e.g. "Israeli film series, Hebrew literacy programs and Jewish history classes"), they also tried to co-ordinate some religious programs to the extent that ritual differences would permit. For example, for the pre-Rosh Hashanah selichot service they held a joint concert, then worshiped separately.
Beth Israel started "The Minyan Project" in 2008, an effort to attract 10 (see minyan) new Orthodox families to New Orleans. The families were given "generous financial assistance", and in return had to "commit to providing community service, from maintaining the eruv enclosure that's due to be completed within the month to assisting in kosher supervision at a local supermarket." According to Topolsky, with the move of four new families to the area, New Orleans likely had proportionately the fastest growing Modern Orthodox community in the United States. In April of that year the Orthodox Union gave the congregation $235,000 towards a new building. At the time, Beth Israel had 80 member families, and 80 "associate member" families (families who belonged to other synagogues as well).
By 2009, the congregation had decided to erect a new synagogue on land it had purchased from Gates of Prayer, part of the lot on which the Gates of Prayer synagogue stood. For the 2009 High Holy Days, Topolsky planned to launch a capital campaign to raise $1 million towards the construction of the building.
- Our New Rabbinic Family, Synagogue website.
- Sources disagree on Beth Israel's founding date:
- New Orleans City Guide (1938/2009), p. 384 states it was founded on October 25, 1903.
- Hyamson & Silbermann (1938), p. 462, Feibelman (1941), p. 93, and Landman (1942), p. 172 give the founding year as 1903.
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 24, Greenberg (2007), and Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2010) give the founding year as 1904.
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 24.
- Greenberg (2007).
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 124.
- Smason (2007).
- Moore (2005).
- Orthodox Union Department of Public Relations (March 21, 2006).
- Okun (2006).
- Smason (2006).
- Naron Chalew (2009).
- The Temple Observer, Fall 2009, p. 4.
- Synagogue website.
- Nolan (September 13, 2007).
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 8.
- Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2010).
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 64.
- American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 21, p. 379.
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 65.
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 97, write that Goldberg joined Beth Israel in 1909 but left within a year to go to Chevra Thilim. New Orleans City Guide (1938/2009), p. 384 states that Goldberg was Beth Israel's first rabbi. Feibelman (1941), p. 93 states that Goldberg served at Chevra Thilim "since 1906".
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 97
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 82.
- Lachoff & Kahn (2005), p. 67.
- New Orleans City Guide (1938/2009), p. 384.
- Feibelman (1941), p. 93.
- Landman (1942), p. 172.
- Sherman (1996), p. 257.
- Lipman (2005).
- Simmons (2006).
- Deep South Jewish Voice (October 26, 2005).
- Luxner (2006).
- Nolan (March 25, 2007).
- Fausset (2007).
- Lipman (2007).
- Naron Chalew (2007).
- Traiman (2007).
- Pfeffer (2007).
- Naron Chalew (2008).
- Orthodox Union News (May 28, 2008).
- Sosnick (2009).
- Beth Israel website. Accessed February 11, 2010.
- Our New Rabbinic Family, Synagogue website. Accessed February 11, 2010.
- American Jewish Committee. PDF (6.06 MB), American Jewish Year Book, Jewish Publication Society, Volume 21 (1919–1920).
- "Deep South File :: New Orleans Rabbi Moves On", Deep South Jewish Voice, October 26, 2005.
- Fausset, Richard. "Matzo, meet gumbo - Want to help rebuild a Jewish community in a stricken city?", Los Angeles Times. July 19, 2007.
- Feibelman, Julian Beck. A social and economic study of the New Orleans Jewish community, University of Pennsylvania, 1941.
- Greenberg, Richard. "A new start in New Orleans", Washington Jewish Week, Jun 13, 2007.
- History of Orthodox Congregations in New Orleans, Goldring / Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life website. Accessed February 11, 2010.
- Hyamson, Albert Montefiore; Silbermann, Abraham Maurice. Vallentine's Jewish Encyclopaedia, Shapiro, Vallentine, 1938.
- Lachoff, Irwin; Kahn, Catherine C. The Jewish Community of New Orleans, Arcadia Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-0-7385-1835-0
- Landman, Isaac. "New Orleans", The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 8, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia Co. Inc., 1942.
- Lipman, Steve. "Devastated But Safe In Wake Of Katrina", The Jewish Week, September 9, 2005.
- Lipman, Steve. PDF (104 KB), The Jewish Week, October 25, 2007.
- Luxner, Larry. "Ruined Synagogue in New Orleans Symbolizes Difficulty of Rebuilding", Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 5, 2006.
- Moore, Solomon. "Rabbi Navigates Waters to Retrieve Holy Texts", Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2005.
- Naron Chalew, Gail. "From recovery to renaissance", New Jersey Jewish Standard (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), August 24, 2007.
- Naron Chalew, Gail. "Jewish New Orleans undergoing dramatic transformation", The Jerusalem Post (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), August 27, 2008.
- Naron Chalew, Gail. "Unusual Reform-Orthodox partnership born of Katrina blossoms", Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 31, 2009.
- Nolan, Bruce. "The Call: The local Jewish federation is launching a recruiting effort to aid New Orleans' recovery", The Times-Picayune, March 25, 2007.
- Nolan, Bruce. "Orthodox Mission: A young rabbi tries to revitalize a congregation hurt by Katrina", The Times-Picayune, September 13, 2007.
- Okun, Adam."New Orleans Jews: 'We are So Lucky'"; 5 Towns Jewish Times, September 7, 2006.
- "At Burial of Destroyed Torah Scrolls in New Orleans, OU Delivers Words of Comfort And Hears Gratitude for its Post-Katrina Role", Orthodox Union, Department of Public Relations, March 21, 2006.
- "As Congregation Beth Israel of New Orleans Rebuilds, OU Continues To Send Support", Orthodox Union, News, May 28, 2008.
- Pfeffer, Anshel. "New Orleans sees resurgence of Jewish life in Hurricane Katrina aftermath", Haaretz, October 28, 2007.
- Sherman, Moshe D. Orthodox Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, Greenwood Publishing Group. 1996. ISBN 978-0-313-24316-5
- Simmons, Ann M. "Synagogue Gets `Gift of Renewal’", Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2006.
- Smason, Alan. "Hurricane Katrina: a tale of two rabbis one year later", Cleveland Jewish News, August 24, 2006.
- Smason, Alan. "Hurricane Katrina: 2nd anniversary no homecoming", Cleveland Jewish News, August 24, 2007.
- Sosnik, Adam. "Public Scandals, Recession Will Be Focus of Many High Holy Day Sermons", The Forward, September 18, 2009.
- "Present at the Flood", The Temple Observer, Star of David Foundation, Volume 1, Number 1, Fall 2009.
- Traiman, Alex. "22 Jewish Leaders Arrested Calling for Removal of Iran at UN", Riverdale Jewish Community Council website, April 17, 2007.
- Works Progress Administration, New Orleans City Guide, Garrett County Press, 2009 (originally published 1938). ISBN 978-1-891053-08-5 Full text archived here.