In 2006, 15 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, Rabbi Myrna Matsa left New York and arrived in Mississippi, armed with a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America and the NY Board of Rabbis.
She was determined to work with religious leaders of all denominations across the spectrum of the Jewish community to help them fight the after-effects of their own traumas.
To fulfill her mission, Matsa used both her training as a Conservative rabbi and her doctor of ministry degree, combining psychology, theology, and pastoral education. She counseled clergy and lay people in the various faith communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as they worked to rebuild their lives and cope with a range of problems.
“Typically, clergy burn out,” said Matsa, citing mass tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. “They have to be there for everybody but they have nobody to go to. My position was created with the idea to help the rabbis whose homes and synagogues were flooded in Hurricane Katrina.”
Matsa discussed her time in Mississippi as scholar-in-residence at Temple B’nai Shalom in West Orange the weekend of Nov. 14-15. After Friday evening services she spoke on “Finding God in a Crisis,” and on Shabbat morning, she presented “A Seat at the Table: The National Jewish Community’s Role and Responsibility in Crisis.”
“When there is a disaster or a crisis that hits a community — it could be a tornado or houses burning — people will typically seek the guidance of a religious leader to try to make sense of the world,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from New Orleans weeks before the B’nai Shalom program. “The religious leader lives in the same community where the disaster happened. Who does that person go to?”
Matsa found needs so great and so widespread that her work branched out to touch those far beyond her fellow Jews. “Everyone was affected, and we were dealing with them,” she said. “The federations did not stop me from working in the greater community. They understand that we as Jews have an obligation to our neighbors as well.”
Traveling throughout the region, she has found different reactions to the hurricane and the floods that followed.
“In Mississippi they understood Katrina as a natural disaster,” said Matsa. “And when there is a natural disaster, people typically roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
In Louisiana, however, “they thought it was a failure of elected officials who neglected to finance what needed to be financed,” most notably the failure to maintain the levees that gave way to allow the massive flooding in New Orleans.
“When people are feeling it was human failure, they get angry, and their anger blocks them from being able to recover more. When you are more concerned about blaming others, you are less available to be part of your own recovery. In Mississippi, the people lifted their hands to take care of each other,” said Matsa.
That picture is changing in the Crescent City, however.
“In New Orleans now it is a different story. They learned that pointing fingers was not going to get them anywhere. You can see the difference in reacting to the oil spill, when people held officials accountable but not pointing blame,” she said.
During her time in the area, she has forged some strong interfaith relationships.
“I don’t know what the public perception of Jews had been before, but we really got into the public mind that Jews really do care, not only about Jews but about the entire neighborhood, about making sure people are safe and able to rebuild,” she said.
Now that her grant money is running out, Matsa is seeking funding for a speaking tour so she can share experiences and knowledge with the nation’s Jewish communities. “I think there is so much to be taught,” she said.
She calls herself “an activist who has been able to plant seeds where there are unmet needs. I try to bring needed resources to unmet needs. I am not trying to be a perfect person. I am just trying to live Jewishly.”