Jane Horwitz sat attentively Tuesday afternoon in the University of Pennsylvania lecture hall – her legs were crossed, one hand clutched a cell phone, and her mouth nervously bit the fingernails on the other – and listened to how the school year would unfold for her teenage daughter Libby, who until Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans was a freshman student at Tulane University.
A little more than a week before, Horwitz and her husband, who live in Havertown and attend Beth David Reform Congregation, had been sitting in the crowd at Tulane's Aug. 27 convocation, ready to send their daughter off to college. But when weather reports predicted that Katrina – then churning and brewing into a monster Category 4 hurricane in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico -was headed straight for the Big Easy, the Horwitzes hightailed it out of Louisiana.
The family headed for the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a Reform-movement summer day camp, outside of Utica, Miss. Rabbi Andrew J. Busch, the former rabbi of Beth David who moved to New Orleans less than two months ago to lead the city's historic Touro Synagogue, and his family joined their former congregants for the evacuation.
"We followed them out of town," said Horwitz. "But what should have been a two-hour drive took seven hours."
The ordeal did not end with a bumper-to-bumper trek up the highway; when Katrina struck two days later, the lights went out at the camp amidst the pouring rain and howling winds. That night, she said, someone left a toilet running; everyone woke in the morning to no running water.
"It quickly became a situation that whoever could get out and had a place to go, left," she relayed. "The Busches took their kids to their family in Decatur, Ill.; we decided to take Libby home. But there were people there who had medical conditions – diabetes, for example – who were concerned about their medication holding out because they couldn't refrigerate it. They had nowhere to go. I don't know what happened to them."
New Orleans, though, fared worse. Spared by the initial onslaught of Katrina, which at the last minute veered to the east and hit Mississippi's Gulf Coast dead on, the low-lying city just days later fell victim to the very levees that protected it from the waters of Lake Ponchartrain.
Now, Tulane is shuttered – its campus is drenched, its buildings are damaged, and the city it calls home is quickly becoming a ghost town beneath, in some places, eight feet of sewage-laden water, and certainly, dead bodies as well. The university is officially closed until further notice; a message posted on its Web site from its president, Scott Cowen, said on Sunday that the earliest it may reopen is for the spring semester.
That leaves hundreds of students scrambling to find colleges to attend. Horwitz visited the new-student orientation for Katrina's victims at Penn, where her daughter had been accepted as a guest for one semester, while Libby Horwitz and her father petitioned Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for a similar spot.
"She was accepted to Penn over the weekend," said Horwitz, director of Penn's Science Teacher Institute, who was waiting for a call with news from New York. "But Libby is an architecture major, and Penn doesn't have an undergraduate architecture program."
According to Kristine Billmyer, Penn's associate dean of continuing education, after making the option available on Sept. 1, the university has accepted 65 undergraduate students displaced by the hurricane. Locally, Drexel University, Temple University and St. Joseph's University are offering similar arrangements. Because Penn's housing is full, all of its transient students are either from the area or are rooming with others.
A dazed Jessica Chane, 19, for instance, is living with her parents in Bala Cynwyd after fleeing New Orleans for Dallas and then back home. The Tulane sophomore and Penn guest student was trying to make sense of the course guide, map and list of resources handed to her in a plastic bag upon arriving at the orientation session.
"We haven't signed up for courses yet," said Chane, whose family attends Adath Israel in Merion Station, one day before the start of classes. "I'm just trying to make the best of it. I'm looking forward to returning to Tulane in the spring."
Horwitz said that might not happen.
"The big question is: Can the community support the reopening of the university, both in terms of the infrastructure and of the people who work there?" said the mother shortly before learning that her daughter would indeed be attending Cornell.
On the Jewish educational end, Gratz College president Jonathan Rosenbaum announced that the institution would be offering free classes to displaced students concentrating in Jewish studies. It's also raising money for hurricane victims.
As the college-bound evacuees regained some modicum of stability, the Philadelphia Jewish community mobilized relief efforts for Katrina's other victims: New Orleans' displaced Jewish community and the thousands of homeless citizens caught in Katrina's path all along the Gulf Coast.
Harold Goldman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, reported the creation of the Hurricane Relief Fund through Federation's Center for Social Responsibility. He said that the fund, which will be administered by United Jewish Communities and assist the efforts of Jewish and nonsectarian agencies in the affected region, had amassed more than $50,000 less than a week after being established.
"We have sent an e-mail out to our donor base, we've got a box open, and we are forming a task force on Wednesday to talk about other tangible things that we can do beyond the financial," said Goldman, who added that Federation is also cooperating in Philadelphia's Operation Brotherly Love, and will help provide services to 1,000 or so families that will arrive here this week.
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, executive director of Lubavitch House in Philadelphia, said that the Chabad Lubavitch organization was trying to provide resources to the more than 10,000 Jewish residents left homeless. An initial plan is for Chabad houses in the South to provide housing for the victims, and the organization has set up a relief fund.
"There are a bunch of programs in the works right now," he said. "We're exchanging information and trying to raise money."
Area synagogues, likewise, have amassed food, toiletries and money for the battered communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. This is in addition to the dollars they are soliciting on behalf of the Jewish movements.
"We need to be doing something; we've been watching the news and the media and we need to do something," said Rabbi Peter Rigler, associate rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, which held a food and clothing drive on Tuesday. "We have one trailer truck a company in New York donated. We're in the process of securing a second truck."
Keneseth Israel's effort will benefit victims being housed by Congregation B'nai Israel in Baton Rouge, La., and families seeking shelter in Philadelphia.
Rabbi Jim Egolf at Beth David said that his congregation's strategy is two-tiered.
"Our first goal is to provide immediate relief to the communities of Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss., because that's where many of the refugees went," said Egolf, who was a rabbi for six years in Jackson. And "we started a fund for Touro Synagogue" in New Orleans.
Egolf said that he personally was distraught in the days leading up to the disaster and didn't know the whereabouts of his friends from the region, including Beth David's former rabbi, Andrew J. Busch.
It wasn't until a phone call from Busch, who was headed for Mississippi, that Egolf's nerves subsided. According to the rabbi, Busch is headed for Houston, where he'll assist the command center set up by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
At Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, shul president Bob Fleischman urged congregants to donate at least $18 to the relief fund of their choice.
Joining in regional relief efforts are the JCCs and the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.
A Place to Stay
And it may not be much in comparison to the thousands without homes, but one Jewish businessman with extensive ties to Philadelphia has decided to offer one of his properties to Jewish hurricane victims willing to relocate on a short-term basis to the Northeast.
Arthur Fefferman, a real estate developer based in Manhattan, whose projects include Liberty Court in Society Hill, is opening a 25-room hotel – the Inn on Locust, at 13th and Locust streets in Center City – to refugees for six-month, rent-free stays.
"We're reaching out to all of the Jewish leadership around the country, to the federations in New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta and the Mississippi Delta to make them aware that this housing in Philadelphia is ready to go," said Fefferman.
Over at Federation, Goldman looked at all of the community initiatives with a sense of hope.
"There's a pent-up demand from the community to do something," he said. "We will take an active lead in mobilizing our resources on this."
• Contributions through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia can be made online at: www.jewishphilly.org/ katrina or by mail to: Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Hurricane Relief Fund, P.O. Box 57200, Philadelphia, PA 19111. Make checks payable to: Jewish Federation and mark the memo section with "Hurricane Relief Fund."
• Contributions through B'nai B'rith should be made payable to the B'nai B'rith Disaster Relief Fund and sent to: B'nai B'rith International, 2020 K Street N.W., 7th floor, Washington, D.C. 20006; or online by going to: www.bnaibrith.org and clicking on the link for disaster relief.
• Contributions through the Union for Reform Judaism can be made online at: www.urj.org/give or by mail to: Union for Reform Judaism, Disaster Relief Fund, 633 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
• Contributions through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism can be made online at: www.uscj.org or by mail to: USCJ Hurricane Disaster Relief Fund, 121 Congressional Lane, Suite 210, Rockville, MD 20852.
• Contributions through the Orthodox Union should be made payable to Orthodox Union, marked "Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund" in the memo section and sent to: Orthodox Union, 11 Broadway, 14th floor, New York, N.Y. 10004; or online by going to: www.ou.org.
• Contributions through Chabad Lubavitch can be made online at: www.chabadneworleans.com or by mail to: Jewish Hurricane Relief Fund, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213.