Satisfied that most of his congregants were safe, the rabbi began to worry about the Torahs.
Rabbi Yisroel Shiff of Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans hoped that his Orthodox synagogue’s holy scrolls would come through Hurricane Katrina undamaged. But if not, he wanted them buried in the appropriate manner.
“We bury them with honor, as we would someone we care about -- the Torah is the life’s blood of our community,” Shiff said.
The rabbi, who evacuated to Tennessee before Katrina hit, knew that the temple near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain had been flooded. But, he said, “we believe in miracles. Maybe the water didn’t reach the scrolls.”
He called Rabbi Isaac Leider, who had spent five years in Israel with the search-and-rescue squad Zak’a, performing sacramental cleanup duties at bus bombings and other sites. Leider -- who also volunteered his services at the World Trade Center, the TWA Flight 800 crash site and other tragedies -- now works with a Jewish ambulance service in New York City and New Jersey.
He had come to New Orleans to make sure that the bodies of any Jews who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina were treated according to religious law. But he also focused on the task of retrieving the congregation’s holy scrolls.
Shiff said at least one of the Torahs had been there when he attended the synagogue as a child -- he doesn’t know exactly how old the scrolls are.
“We had them appraised and were told our scrolls are much older than 100 years,” he said. “They must have come from Europe. The congregation is 101 years old, and they have been with them at least that long.”
Often, Torahs are the most valuable artifacts of a Jewish congregation. A new Torah scroll can cost $50,000. Older scrolls -- and many are hundreds of years old -- often are worth much more.
But their value is not based on the material.
“The Torah is the basis of the Jewish religion,” Leider said. “Last week, we were saving lives, but once that was done, this became just as important.”
Said Shiff: “The Torah scrolls are particularly precious to people who live by their words.”
The Torah tells the story of Moses as he led the Jews out of Egypt. The text, which Christians know as the Old Testament, also holds the most important laws of the Jewish faith.
“The Torah is not stored in a computer file; we don’t copy them on copy machines,” said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an association of several hundred Orthodox congregations that sponsored Leider’s recovery efforts. “They are only written by the most devout and knowledgeable scribes.”
A Torah is handwritten by a rabbinical scribe trained for years in the art of Hebrew calligraphy. There are centuries-old requirements on the exact size and spacing of characters, and special rites associated with words representing the Ten Commandments and Moses.
It can take as long as a year for a scribe -- using a quill and sacred ink made from an age-old recipe -- to complete a Torah. The scrolls must be made from cowhide, thinned to a leathery parchment, then woven together with leather thread to complete the text.
The scroll is then wrapped around wooden rods that often are capped with pure silver. Each Torah, the five books of the Jewish Scriptures, is then cloaked in purple velvet and stored in an ark, or cabinet; it is removed only for congregational prayers and on the high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
And when they are damaged beyond repair -- by fire or flood, for example -- they must be buried according to Jewish tradition.
There were about 10,000 Jews in New Orleans. Many of their families had lived there since the 19th century, emigrating from Europe to open businesses in what was then a thriving port city.
Several other Jewish organizations, including Chabad, a large Orthodox group based in New York, also sent squads of rabbis and recovery specialists to retrieve the precious texts; funds are being raised for further efforts.
On Sunday, Leider drove with colleagues from his New York ambulance team toward Congregation Beth Israel. But about five miles south of the synagogue, they came to the edge of the floodwaters. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had drained much of the city, many areas remained immersed in dark, fetid water.
Leider and other Jewish leaders called on the government to assist them. They met with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Louisiana National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Baton Rouge, La.
By Tuesday morning, the water had receded enough to enter the synagogue, so Leider hired a helicopter to fly him within a mile of Congregation Beth Israel.
There he met with a search-and-rescue team from Menlo Park, Calif., that FEMA had charged with retrieving the scrolls.
The synagogue is on Canal Boulevard on the northern edge of the city, a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain; it sits between two canals.
Leider and the rescue team climbed aboard a pair of rubber rafts with outboard motors and started toward the synagogue through flooded streets, barred in places by brambles and rusting cars. They drifted past stately homes, all flooded and empty, marked with red spray paint to indicate that they had been searched.
The synagogue was still swamped by 4 feet of water. Wearing waist-high rubber waders and a yarmulke, Leider followed the rescue squad into the synagogue and made his way to the sanctuary. The wooden door swung open, slowed by the water.
A high-water mark, at 7 feet, lined the walls. Leider inched his way through aisles filled with saturated seat cushions, broken glass, and overturned pews and podiums.
The rabbi waded to the front of the hall and opened the ark that held six Torah scrolls. He also found a white prayer shawl and the silver adornments for the scrolls. He cradled them in his arms and made his way toward the rafts.
“Out of six, only two are restorable,” Leider said. “I’m glad that we did this, but I’m disappointed. It’s bad to see them in this condition.”