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The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
October 2005 > Katrina

FEMA Worker and Zaka Rabbi Isaac Leider cooperate to salvage Torahs from Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans

How to Make "Safer" Torah

Zaka Rescues Damaged Torahs from New Orleans

In a dramatic rescue operation, Mr. Isaac Leider, of the New York ZAKA Rescue & Recovery Organization, waded through waist-deep toxic floodwaters yesterday with six Torah scrolls from Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans. A few of the Torah scrolls are believed to be more than 250 years old. The synagogue, surround by five meters of water, is located near a canal that overflowed during Hurricane Katrina.

"Out of six, only two are possibly restorable," Leider said, as he sat in an inflatable rescue boat with the Torah scrolls he recovered. "I'm glad that we did this, but I'm terribly saddened. It's hard to see them in this condition." The scrolls are blackened from the toxic water and severely damaged. (A Torah scroll, which is entirely handwritten, can cost over $35,000.)

"The scrolls at all the other synagogues [in New Orleans] were taken out," Leider said.

Mr. Leider, who spent five years with ZAKA's search-and-rescue squad in Israel, arrived in New Orleans last week to ensure that the bodies of Jews killed by Hurricane Katrina are treated in accordance with Jewish religious law.

Zaka Rabbi Isaac Leider in boat with  Torahs salvaged from Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans

In the operation to rescue the Torah scrolls, Mr. Leider was joined by members of the National Guard and other volunteers who were brought by ZAKA in a private helicopter from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The helicopter landed a few blocks away from the synagogue, and an inflatable boat was used to transport ZAKA volunteers to Congregation Beth Israel.

Zaka is known in Israel for providing emergency aid at the scene of bombings. Since the Israel-based charity organization, ZAKA, is strapped for cash, Agudath Israel of America partially funded the operation.

Upon opening the ark, Mr. Leider burst into tears as he removed the Torah scrolls, all of them drenched. The scrolls were subsequently handed over to representatives of the synagogue in Baton Rouge.

Zaka was also trying to get to the Chabad synagogue that is still under water and save eight Torah scrolls believed to be inside.

Meanwhile, Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) volunteers operating in the Gulf Coast area reported Wednesday on six members of the New Orleans Jewish community who died during Katrina.

According to Issac Lieder of Baton Rouge, two of the dead were in a nursing home and the other four in their own houses. It is believed that all the Jews

 who died in the city were elderly and they may have suffered from other conditions that worsened because of the lack of electricity, water and medical care.

According to Zaka's report, four of the bodies were already recovered, one buried in New York and another in Baton Rouge, and there was an ongoing attempt to gain access to the other two.

(c) 2005 Zaka: Rescue and Recovery. Reprinted with permission of Zaka.