NEW YORK — One of the enduring images of Hurricane Katrina for the Jewish community of New Orleans, and well beyond, was of a kipa-wearing rescue worker, in waist-high water, carrying one of seven Torahs out of the sanctuary of the century-old Orthodox congregation, Beth Israel.
The Torahs did not make it; water-logged beyond repair, they ultimately were buried in the synagogue’s cemetery, along with 3,000 prayer books.
But the congregation survived, and five years later is about to build a new home in the most unlikely of spots — on the grounds of nearby Reform temple Gates of Prayer.
The tale of how Orthodox and Reform communities came to plan their future together is one that combines fate, compassion and the most unlikely of warm relationships between the Orthodox and Reform rabbis at the helm of their respective congregations.
On a recent Friday morning I visited with them during their weekly Torah study session together and witnessed the easy, but deeply respectful friendship Rabbis Uri Topolosky and Robert Loewy have developed — a scene all too rare in American Jewish life.
Topolosky, 32, a graduate of the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, says he was drawn to leave his post as associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for New Orleans in 2007 because of the absence of intra-Orthodox politics in a small, Southern Jewish community, and especially because of Beth Israel’s compelling needs.
He found a congregation in need of emotional as well as religious support.
“We had lost our sense of family,” the rabbi said of Beth Israel after being displaced by the storm. “We were shattered.”
When Beth Israel’s building was rendered unusable by the devastating storm, with water as high as eight feet inside, nearby congregations of each denomination offered to provide temporary quarters to the approximately 150 member families of the shul, in the suburban neighborhood of Metairie.
The congregants were deeply grateful. Former Beth Israel president Jackie Gothard explained how the leaders chose which offer to accept, acknowledging that they felt Chabad was “too much” for their members and feared they might lose members to the Conservative congregation if they prayed there. So they chose Gates of Prayer.
The temporary arrangement, initially thought to last two years, is now in its fifth year of sharing a cramped office and medium-size recreation room (where Beth Israel holds services).
Robert Loewy, 60, who has been rabbi of the temple since 1984, says the only problems resulting from the move have been logistical, with both congregations feeling the space shortage. Otherwise, good will prevails.
Loewy says his relationship with previous Orthodox rabbis in the community was “up and down,” based on their willingness to engage with a Reform rabbi. But he said he and Topolosky hit it off from the first time they met, when the young Orthodox rabbi came into the Reform Friday night service after his own service had ended and sang along with the temple congregants to the prayer, Shalom Rav.
“I saw that he knew our tune and I thought, ah, a good sign,” recalls Loewy.
The two men talked after services and Loewy ended up walking Topolosky home, and then walking to his own house from there, forgoing his usual drive home out of respect for his observant colleague.
Over the next three years, their personal and congregational relationships have only deepened, and they have now offered adult education classes together as well as co-written D’var Torahs and swapped pulpits for Shabbat sermons.
“We’ve become apostles of pluralism,” Loewy said with a smile.
He and Topolosky pointed out that they still have very real theological differences, and the two congregations do not hold religious services together.
“But we’ve developed a sensitivity toward each other’s denominational position and feel we can learn from each other’s movement,” Topolosky said.
“We are both strengthened” by this relationship,” he added, noting that the association no doubt helps congregants clarify why they affiliate as they do.
Historically, the Jews of New Orleans have been predominantly Reform, and that holds true today. It is believed that the Jewish community, many of whose 9,000 members were dispersed after Katrina forced schools throughout the area to close for a year, is seeing a revival of sorts. But congregations have lost members and the community day school, which once had 90 students and went through eighth grade, now ends after fifth grade and has 51 students, about 10 of whom, mostly in pre-kindergarten, are not Jewish.
Few of Beth Israel’s members are Orthodox by practice; they tend to affiliate because of longstanding familial ties to the congregation. Rabbi Topolosky said the shul had been “dying for 25 years,” with very few children, and that now there are 15 children under 6 attending on Shabbat, including his two boys, 6 and 4 (The 1 year old stays home).
Both he and Loewy say their outlook on peoplehood and pluralism has been strengthened through their friendship and study together, and they each describe the other as “trusted colleague.”
They are well aware of how unusual their relationship is, especially in heavily populated Jewish areas, but urge other rabbis to be more open to such associations.
“I’d encourage Jewish communities to look at the possibilities of mutual cooperation, growth and respect,” Loewy said, adding: “I’d like to see my Reform colleagues open up.”
“We learned part of this lesson through a disaster,” Topolosky said of Katrina. He bemoaned the slow death of small Jewish communities around the country that have a special quality of warmth and camaraderie.
“These communities offer real value,” he said, but noted that the message seems to be that, for observant Jews, one can’t live outside of enclaves that have a wealth of synagogues, yeshivas, and kosher restaurants.
Wherever his career takes him, Topolosky said, “a major piece of my rabbinate” will be to be “part of one people — it makes you stronger and makes the community stronger.
“So don’t wait for a disaster to collaborate.”
On our way out of the temple, the two rabbis pointed with pride to the parcel of Gates of Prayer land on the ground that has been sold to Beth Israel for its new building, soon to begin construction.
Between the two synagogues will be a playground —a fitting symbol of the hope that the next generation will find friendship between Jews of different denominations as natural as children playing together.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)