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Keeping the faith in the High Holy Days

Houston Chronicle

Displaced Louisiana Jews are praying that ‘some good’ will come out of hurricane

Toby Lew plans to pray as never before during Yom Kippur, which begins today at sunset.

While Yom Kippur, the most holy of Jewish holy days, is always a time of serious reflection, the Day of Atonement carries added solemnity this year for Lew and other displaced New Orleans Jews.

“When I prayed at Rosh Hashana, I have not prayed like that in a long time,” said Lew, the mother of three young children. “I really put my heart and soul into it and hoped that everything goes well for everyone.

“You have to have deep faith in what God does, whether we like it or not,” the hurricane evacuee said. “We have to see good in it at some point, whether we see it now or we will see it 10 years from now. Some good is going to come out of this.”

Fasting and repentance

Yom Kippur, also a day of fasting and repentance, concludes the High Holy Days that began 10 days ago with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Jews believe God decides the fate of humanity for the next year during the 10-day period and seals the Book of Life on Yom Kippur.

The ravages of Hurricane Katrina were so traumatic to the 100 families of the Chabad-Lubavitch Centers in New Orleans and nearby Metairie that Rabbi Mendel Rivkin opened the High Holy Days with a Rosh Hashana retreat in Monroe, La. About 120 people came from Houston, Baton Rouge and other evacuation cities to participate.

“Community is very important in the High Holy Days,” Rivkin said. “That is why Jews who don’t come to synagogue the whole year make it their business to come for those days.”

And community is very important during the hurricane-provoked diaspora of New Orleans Jews.

“We all suffered personal losses,” said Rivkin, a father of five. He was moving into a new home, and all his family’s possessions were on a moving truck. He has no idea where the truck is. No one answers at the moving company.

Like the other members of his religious community, he has questions.

“I do ask why,” Rivkin said. “I don’t have an answer, but it doesn’t change my faith.”

For Yom Kippur, Rivkin will be in the unusual position of being a guest in another synagogue. He is encouraging the nearly 20 New Orleans Lubavitch families in the Houston area to participate in local services rather than have separate worship.

Although their New Orleans Lubavitch Center did not suffer damage, the 50 families it served are scattered, and it may be months before they can return to rebuild homes — if they return, he said.

Penny Pershall and her family, members of Rivkin’s congregation, left New Orleans at 2 a.m. the day before Katrina hit.

Like many, she fully expected to be back home in two days.

“We had the clothes we were wearing and one extra set,” she said. “Everything I am wearing people gave me.”

Lew also is living on the goodness of others. She has an apartment, clothes and food contributed by fellow Lubavitchers and the Houston community.

“I like to be on the giving end, not the receiving end,” she said. Her husband, Alexander, is job hunting.

Though their apartment in New Orleans is not seriously damaged, they will not return until it is safe for the children. “Children don’t belong in that city at this point, so I am here and making the best of the situation,” Lew said.

Reflection and prayer

Pershall, who is teaching music at the Houston Lubavitch Center’s day school, has been reflecting and praying the past 10 days.

“I very much have been thinking for myself and my family: ‘What is our role, what are we supposed to be doing, why are we here?’ ” she said.

“Why did HaShem (the Lord) put us on this planet, and what is it we are supposed to be doing, and how can we best fulfill it?”

Pershall, the mother of an 8-year-old boy looks for answers in daily prayers, the Psalms, monologues with HaShem.

She also wonders whether recent disasters are preparatory to the advent of the Messiah. “It may be coming sooner than we think,” she said. “Maybe this is part of our preparation, to get us ready.”