Rabbi Isaac Leider waded through waistdeep water that had stagnated for two weeks inside Congregation Beth Israel after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The volunteer from New York's ZAKA Rescue and Recovery organization pushed past wooden pews strewn everywhere until he reached his destination: the aron kodesh, holy ark. As he reached inside, the rabbi burst into tears; all six Torah scrolls were drenched. He loaded them on a rescue boat, but later inspection confirmed what the New Orleans congregation feared: The Torahs were damaged beyond repair.
Like millions of Americans, Ethan Ulanow, 10 years old at the time, watched in horror as floodwaters swamped New Orleans. Heeding the Biblical commandment, "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed," Ethan and his family gathered immediately in their Potomac, Maryland, home to discuss how they could help.
"We were going to give money, of course," recounts Ethan. "But I wanted to do more to help the people start over again." How could a kid help? Eventually an idea clicked. A family friend repairs Torahs, many of them from European communities that had been destroyed during the Holocaust. What could be more fitting than for one of these Torahs to find a renewed life in Beth Israel, a New Orleans synagogue struggling for its own renewal?
With his bar mitzvah approaching in October 2007, Ethan requested that instead of giving him gifts, his guests should contribute toward the cost of transporting a Sefer Torah to the United States and repairing it. (Ethan's family donated the remainder of the total cost.) A sofer (scribe), painstakingly repaired the Torah, and Ethan inscribed the last few letters. As he dipped the turkey quill in ink, Ethan recited the Sheheh'eyanu blessing, thanking God for enabling him to reach that special moment.
Last winter, Ethan and his family traveled to New Orleans to bring the Torah to its new home, Beth Israel. With its building gutted and its membership down, the 104-year-old synagogue is fighting for its recovery. Although the storm scattered community members far and wide--even the rabbi relocated--the remaining contingent is optimistic that Beth Israel will emerge even stronger than before Katrina. They continue to daven (pray) as a community, renting space in a nearby synagogue that survived, and have hired a new rabbi. With Ethan's donation, the synagogue now has five Torah scrolls. "Each time the congregation takes the Torah out," says Ethan, "it's like I'll be doing another mitzvah."