An excerpt from the book, Spirits of the Bayou: Sanctuaries, Cemeteries and Hauntings
Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans including eight Jewish sanctuaries. Beth Israel owned the highest price tag at $2 million.
Riding along Elysian Fields Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the Gentilly/Lakefront neighborhood, is the building that once housed the Beth Israel synagogue. On that fateful day the flood waters reached above the doors just under the portico of the breezeway.
Further down the highway there are three Jewish cemeteries in a one-block area. On the far right is the Anshe Sfard Cemetery (Orthodox) and behind it is the Ahavas Sholem Cemetery. On the left is the Beth Israel Cemetery.
Smartly done, the cemetery gate features bold geometric lines dressed in black with the words Beth Israel. Inside the perimeter is an octagon shaped pavilion, an open-air sanctuary used for prayer during burial ceremonies and when others come to pay their respects. Many of the headstones are inscribed with both English and Hebrew and the Holocaust survivors have unique plaques affixed to the stone.
In the far right hand corner of the Ahavas Sholem Cemetery is a raised earthen mound and atop a memorial plaque. Here is the final home for the holy books and the prayer shawl. Ahavas Sholem donated a special plot to the Beth Israel congregation to bury the books. Volunteers, including many college students on break, came together emptying the synagogue’s mildewed library. They separated the non-secular and holy books, placing them in boxes. A video at the burial site reveals a moving act of kindness along with a monumental act of devotion.
They formed an assembly line tossing each box to their partner, and then finally emptying the box into the dark black dirt. This continued for most of the day, along with prayers from generations of Beth Israel faithful followers. The prayer shawl was placed atop the books, and then one by one, the volunteers shoveled the mounds of dirt back into the grave. During the prayers, a rabbi reminded everyone that books have souls, they hold the Jewish traditions, and just as the letters from the pages of the book float to heaven, the Jewish traditions will stay deep inside those who cradled the books, those who gallantly retrieved them and laid them to rest.
In the Beth Israel section of the cemetery is the final resting place of the Beth Israel Torah scrolls. The scroll headstone sits just inches from the Meyer Lachoff gravesite. Lachoff was the congregation’s long time Gabai, a caretaker, and in this congregation he was the guardian of the Torah scrolls. He died August 31, 2005, just days after the storm, and now he watches over the scrolls once more.
The history of and lineage of Jewish Synagogues in the Greater New Orleans area can be found in the Sanctuaries section of the book. See Table of Contents for more details.
New Chevra Thilim Cemetery, 5000 Iberville Street, New Orleans, www.jewishnola.com
Ahavas Sholem, AnsheSfard Cemetery, Beth Israel Cemetery, 4400 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans