The dedication of a new Torah scroll is always cause for celebration, but to those close to the Chabad Jewish Center in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La., their freshly written Torah is a joyous symbol of their very survival.

The Metairie Jewish community rejoiced at the arrival of the sacred scroll on Dec. 2 in a ceremony made all the more poignant given the region's upheaval following Hurricane Katrina's destruction in August 2005.

Rabbi Yossie and Chanie Nemes, co-directors of the Chabad Jewish Center, joined his brother Rabbi Mendel Nemes, program director of the Chabad-Lubavitch children's organization Tzivos Hashem in Brooklyn, N.Y., and sister Rishi Greenwald, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Long Beach, Calif., in sponsoring the new Torah and its pure silver crown. They dedicated the holy items to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, and their late parents.

The story of this particular scroll began in 2006, when the Nemes family matriarch, Zelda Nemes, sought to dedicate a Torah in honor of her husband Yitzchak who had just passed away. She died just a few months later. Both of them visited the Metairie community on every available Jewish holiday.

After the family commissioned the scroll, a scribe in Jerusalem began the laborious process of writing it, copying the Torah letter by letter from a master scroll. At the celebration last Sunday, Rabbi Yossie Schechter, a scribe in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote the scroll's last 40 letters, which guests lined up to sponsor.

The celebration included a musical procession through the streets surrounding the Chabad center; celebrants carried the Torah under a chuppah while more than 200 people danced behind. Neighbors, many otherwise occupied with the televised home football game between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, came out of the homes to watch and wave. A gala dinner at the Chabad center capped off the festivities.

A Community Rebuilds

Rejoicing with the new Torah
Rejoicing with the new Torah
Metairie resident Jill Halpern contrasted the celebration with the hardships faced by the community two years prior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Then, many people returning to the neighborhood didn't have a place to eat, their homes ravaged by wind, rain and flood.

"Their homes, their kitchens [were destroyed]," she said. "We were all struggling."

Even the Chabad center was affected: Water from a broken levee system filled its corridors. The Nemeses' house was destroyed.

"Here was the Chabad House that had been underwater, no wallpaper, gutted out," continued Halpern. "If the Chabad House was still going to be there, then it was like a little symbol" that the community could remain.

Halpern said that many people learned to trust in Divine Providence after the tragedy.

The Nemeses "lost their home, the shul, everything was decimated," she related. "You didn't know where your next penny was going to come from. You were totally relying on Hashem."

Halpern's husband, for instance, lost his business after the hurricane. He had been unhappy there, to begin with, but couldn't bring himself to leave.

"He couldn't cut the umbilical cord, and the hurricane did the cutting," commented Halpern.

Her husband is now happy at his job.

"And it wouldn't have happened" without the hurricane, said Halpern. "The hurricane forced us to make decisions that we had been putting on the back burner, [decisions] that we needed to make to make our lives more real."

Halpern and her husband decided to attend the Chabad center more regularly: "I said, 'I'm taking a stand here, for Chabad.'"

As New Orleans rebuilds and redefines itself, many enterprising souls have come to stake a new claim to life in the Southern town. Among them are scores of Israelis, many of whom now attend events at the Chabad center, which is hosting a Chanukah party especially for them on Dec. 10.

One such Israeli, 24-year-old Roe Vaturi, said that he left the Torah dedication inspired.

"It was amazing; it was the first time I saw a hachnasat sefer torah," he said, using the Hebrew term for the celebration. "I and most of the Israelis came over here after the hurricane. We saw an opportunity that there's going to be a new place, so we [could] build ourselves together with the community. Then we met Rabbi Nemes at the Chabad House.

"I think we would never survive over here without the Chabad House," added Vaturi. "They are doing everything to take care of the Israelis. Everybody is just jumping to help you and try to do everything to make you satisfied."

"There's a new vibrancy," stated Yossie Nemes. "The shul is full every day. People come for classes, meals and meetings three nights a week."

Of the new Torah, the rabbi said that the celebration meant so much to both his family and his community.

"I guess you could say it was really therapeutic for the whole community," he offered. "The joy was absolute."