Recognizing 10 years since Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 23-31, 2005)

Last in a series of articles on the storm, its aftermath and the ensuing growth of Chabad in Louisiana

After 16 years of directing the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin are expanding their operations. They’re adding Rabbi Leibel and Mushka Lipskier to the mix—one of 20 new Chabad on Campus couples going out on shlichus this year; in this case, joining the existing emissaries at the academic institution.

“We felt there was a need to have a Chabad that serves the graduate students, in addition to a Chabad that serves the undergraduates,” says Rabbi Rivkin, so he and his wife will now focus on that sector of the student body.

Lipskier, the official new director of undergraduate programming for Chabad at Tulane, and his wife will be taking over the current Chabad House at Tulane. Rivkin assures that “undergraduate programming is going to grow because they will be focused full-time on this significant population.”

Meanwhile, the Rivkins, who have eight children, are in the process of moving. Soon, they will shift their focus to graduate-student programming, where they aim to set up events that meet the needs of diverse schedules, such as those of medical and law students. “They don’t really feel like there’s much of a platform for them to meet other young Jews,” says Rivkin. “So that’s something we hope to be able to provide.”

Previous graduate events have drawn between 50 and 60 students, but he says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Lipskiers—who arrived in Louisiana this month—will work to connect with the estimated 2,000 Jewish undergraduate students on Tulane’s campus, while the Rivkins will reach out to an estimated 500 Jewish graduate students.

“They’re going to bring a new energy to the undergraduate program,” says Rabbi Rivkin of the new couple. “They are extremely passionate about the work that Chabad does on campus.”

‘The School Shut Down’

A quilt in the faculty dining room exhibits organizations that took in Tulane students in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A quilt in the faculty dining room exhibits organizations that took in Tulane students in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Such growth comes exactly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans and the Louisiana coast. Upon news of the impending storm, university officials made plans to close Tulane—the second time in its history (the first was during the Civil War). Hundreds of students already there were evacuated—another second, having done so the September before when Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004.

That initial decision turned into four months of closure—the entire fall semester—while the city grappled with the immediate aftermath, including floodwaters, loss of power, closed roads, homes and city buildings sodden or demolished, and more. “The school shut down,” recalls Rivkin. “Everyone was gone.”

Damage to university property was extensive, with water entering school buildings, libraries and other campus property.

Tulane students found temporary educational homes at other U.S colleges and universities. According to a university report, some 13,000 Tulane students enrolled in 600-plus colleges and universities across the country on a provisional basis, as did students from other affected colleges. The large majority returned in the spring.

“By August,” says Rivkin, “in areas not devastated by the storm, you couldn’t really tell there was a hurricane other than the water lines, the black marks, on buildings and other structures.”

He adds that there was no damage to the Chabad House space they were using at the time; in fact, they were actually getting ready to tear down a building and put a new one up. The current Chabad at Tulane facility was completed in September 2007.

From left: Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, Sam Lipman, Spencer Frankston and Rabbi Leibel Lipskier
From left: Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, Sam Lipman, Spencer Frankston and Rabbi Leibel Lipskier

In a televised speech on Sept. 21, 2005, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush singled out the Rivkin family for their efforts on behalf of those who were stranded or needed help.

“At Tulane University, the director of the Chabad, Rabbi Rivkin, brought teams of students to New Orleans, and southern Mississippi, and other communities hit by the storm. He called in folks to help. He didn't say, head away from the storm; he said, let’s take it right to the middle of the storm area to help people. They helped rescue stranded people; they distributed bottled water and self-heating kosher meals; they cleaned up and helped salvage homes; they provided spiritual support for those who lost loved ones. And one of those rescued from New Orleans put it this way: In the days after Katrina hit, Chabad saved lives.’ ”

‘Tap Into Judaism’

Lipskier and his wife both have siblings who run campus Chabads, and so they jumped at the opportunity to run similar programming. “We both have a specific interest in impacting students,” says the rabbi.

Mushka Lipskier, who grew up in an emissary family in Montreal, is eager to “really get to know” Tulane’s many Jewish students. She says she values the opportunity to have an impact on them and to learn from them as well.

“College is a pivotal time in their lives,” she says. “There are so many choices, and many are on their own,” away from their families for the first time. “These are important years to tap into their Judaism.”

Challah-making for Shabbat 1000
Challah-making for Shabbat 1000

The couple has already organized “Welcome Week,” a back-to-school barbecue and a resource fair as the students start to return to campus.

In addition to regular Shabbat dinners, services, social and educational programs, and one-on-one meetings with students, Mushka Lipskier will also hold challah-making classes and a monthly women’s group. “I want them to learn about powerful Jewish women in history,” she says.

The couple and their two children—Mendel, 4; and Levi, 15 months—moved to New Orleans from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

And the Tulane community has been looking forward to their arrival.

Rising senior Sophia Waldstein, 21, met the new Chabad couple at a “meet-and-greet” lunch earlier this year. “I felt like I really connected with her,” she says of Mushka Lipskier,” adding that she looks forward to getting to know the whole family.

A student board member for Chabad, Waldstein has high hopes for this year’s activities: “We’re looking forward to creating a new sense of warmth and community.”

Nineteen-year-old Garrett Langfeld first got involved with Chabad during move-in weekend, when he went to a Chabad freshman barbecue. The soon-to-be junior spent his sophomore year as a board member for Chabad; he, too, had the opportunity to greet the new emissaries when they first visited New Orleans.

The Minyanaires Club
The Minyanaires Club

“What I’m excited about is that they’ll be able to focus exclusively on undergraduates,” he says. “They’ll also be a little bit closer in age.”

Langfeld also likes the fact that they seem interested in educational, yet entertaining, ways on engaging students in Jewish life. “I hope they continue ‘Pizza & Parshah’ and many of the other fun programs that might attract students who don’t normally come to Chabad.”

Lest anyone think the undergrads won’t see the Rivkins anymore, that’s not so, according to those involved. Langfeld, for one, hopes to spend time with the rabbi and his wife during the course of the school year when everything’s in full swing.

“Yochanan and Sarah have been absolutely terrific here; they’re both really warm, welcoming people,” he affirms. “They make you feel at home when you’re at Chabad. I’m sure the new couple will follow in their footsteps.”

Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin
Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin
Rabbi Leibel and Mushka Lipskier, and sons Mendel and Levi
Rabbi Leibel and Mushka Lipskier, and sons Mendel and Levi

The first article in the series “Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina: Two Rabbis Recall the Scene on the Ground” can be read here.

The second article in the series “Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina: Jewish New Orleans Keeps on Growing Younger” can be read here.

The third article in the series “Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina: Chabad Sets Down Roots in Baton Rouge” can be read here.