Jackie Gothard, who led rebuilding of New Orleans congregation after Hurricane Katrina, has died


(JTA) — Jackie Gothard, the driving force behind the rebuilding of her New Orleans Orthodox congregation after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has died.

Gothard died Monday of heart failure following emergency surgery. She was 83.

The first female president of Congregation Beth Israel in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, Gothard was in office when Katrina struck in 2005. She oversaw the burial of the synagogue’s seven Torah scrolls as a result of water damage from the flooding in a story she recounted 10 years later for The My Katrina Story project, a multimedia partnership of the Loyola University School of Mass Communication, the Center for the Study of New Orleans and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

Some 150 people attended the burial in a cemetery plot of the Torah scrolls.

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A year later, a girl named Hayley Fields from Los Angeles, who for her bat mitzvah project sold plastic watches for $5 each to raise money for a refurbished Torah, brought the scroll to the synagogue on the first anniversary of Katrina.

“It was amazing. All around us church bells were ringing [to mark the anniversary],” Gothard recalled for the My Katrina Project story. “We had klezmer music and were dancing in the street outside Gates of Prayer with our new Torah. Four additional refurbished Torahs were donated. Each one that came was amazing. It was such a celebration for Beth Israel.”

Gothard guided the building of Beth Israel’s new home in suburban Metairie alongside the Reform synagogue Congregation Gates of Prayer.

The New Orleans-based Cresent City Jewish News called Gothard the “primary author of then-101 year-old Orthodox congregation’s recovery.” Gothard was the first to meet with the Gates of Prayer rabbi and administrator to discuss relocating next door to the Reform synagogue and, the newspaper said, “it was Gothard who rallied the dispersed members, suggesting a comeback from such a tragedy was possible.”

She also got on a plane to Milwaukee to meet with representatives of the Orthodox Union to make clear their desperate plight and to get financial support from the umbrella organization. She returned home with a six-figure contribution from the OU to help the synagogue in its recovery.

She worked as a social worker for Child Protective Services at the New Orleans Department of Welfare, and then later as a travel agent specializing in trips to Israel. She also led six-week teen tours of Israel for six years.

Gothard was involved in Hadassah, Jewish Family Services — she was active in the Teen Life Counts suicide prevention program — the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish War Veterans of America.

She is survived by her husband of 60 years, Sol; five children; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson; and a sister.