Returning to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina's visit 2 months ago was an emotional roller coaster. My children cheered as we crossed the Bonnet Carrie Spillway into the New Orleans Metro Area, as they did when the saw the first highway signs on the I-10 mentioning New Orleans. I do not know what they were thinking as we exited the highway onto the devestation that is Carrollton Ave. The old adage "seeing is different than hearing," really came to life. Words cannot aptly describe what I saw nor the sinking feeling in my heart as I veiwed my city. Along the few miles of Carrollton Ave between the I-10 and our neighborhood no businesses are open. There is debris all over and the trafic lights are not working. It looks like a city after a bombing. Broadway was more of the same. Here and there a house was getting cleaned out, garbage was picked up and a trafic light was working. Chabad House however, was like an oasis of normalcy in the desert of destruction. The yard was trim. The garbage was cleared away. The stench that permeated the rest of the city from the spoiled food in refrigerators and freezers was absent. Thanks to a strange turn of events the food was emptied out of Chabad House during the days after the hurricane by hungry people needing food. That ended up saving all of the appliances. Even the Mikvah was in a pristine state to the relief of the people that needed to use it.
In preparation for the holiday, we repaired the Chabad Sukkah and cut down schach to the backdrop of 900 disaster restoration workers operating on Tulane University campus.
The Rivkin (Rabbi Zelig and Bluma) house on Broadway was back in business as well. With a new fridge and freezer along with a fresh shipment of food from Kosher Cajun, we were ready for the holiday. Dozens of people were coming in and out of the house. Many were staying over and even more were eating over. Two days of cooking later and Yomtov was about to begin.
For the first night and round of Hakafot about 40 people came to Chabad House. The atmosphere was extremely lively. Among the participants were members of the military, Israeli construction workers and locals who were back in town. Helped by some good Lchaim in the sukkah, the dancing and singing was the way it should be in a Chabad House. The lively mood carried over to the Rivkin Sukkah for a few more hours of celebration.
The next day - Shmini Atzeret - services included Yizkor and were well attended. Several members of Beth Israel (a Shul that was destroyed by Katrina) came for Yizkor and for Hakafot later that evening. Toward evening we began to prepare Chabad House for Simchat Torah Hakafot. The food and tables were set up in their customary fashion. The people started coming ot of the woodwork. There were over 70 people including several children who danced with stuffed Torahs that we found stored away from last year. Kiddush and refreshments were enjoyed immensely. All of the usual Chabad House Simchat Torah practices were in place. We danced outside, did summersaults (our best wishes to Jon Powell for a speedy recovery) and enjoyed a visit by the "reggae-moshiach-mon." The celebrating went on for hours and continued until the wee hours of the morning at the Rivkin home. The following morning was a three-peat for those who could stomach it. A good time was had by all.
"As Shabbat Bereshit goes, so goes the whole year." This maxim was applied at Chabad House, where Friday night saw an overflow crowd for the meal after services "wall to wall." The gourmet Kiddush lunch on Shabbat afternoon really set the tone for a beautiful Shabbat and hopefully an upbeat year for Chabad and the entire New Orleans Jewish community.
The holiday of Sukkot at Chabad was a ray of light and hope for the future. We all have qustions and uncertainties, but Chabad House is a steady and constant presence. Following next Shabbat, Rabbi Zelig and Bluma Rivkin are moving back to New Orleans on a permanent basis (until the coming of Moshiach soon). We are back and we look forward to seeing you in the near future.