Brad's Blog: Coast houses of worship hold great recovery stories

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - There are a handful of times in a person's life when you get to do something that impacts a community for generations to come.  If you're a member of the building committee at your church - or in my case, my synagogue - you have that opportunity.

It's hard to fathom just how many sanctuaries were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  Because of that storm, the coast is dotted with slabs that used to be houses of worship.

But look around, the area is also dotted with incredible recovery stories.  Religious groups are rebuilding their sanctuaries.  And the structures they're creating will hopefully be where congregants pray for generations to come.

Congregation Beth Israel is the latest example of a religious group putting itself back together.  Its story is just like other storm stories.  Katrina tore through the Jewish community's original home.  After analyzing its options, the congregation made a difficult decision.  It would abandon its nearly 50 year old home in Biloxi, and rebuild on a new property in Gulfport, several miles inland.

Skyrocketing construction costs made initial rebuilding efforts impossible.   As a result, there was an anxious time in 2007 and 2008 when the leadership at Beth Israel wondered if rebuilding would ever happen.  Bids to rebuild the synagogue were two to three times the congregation's budget.  And congregants were starting to wonder if Beth Israel's decision to relocate was a mistake.

I'm keenly aware of the anxiety being felt at that time, because I'm about to start my third year as the congregation's president.

In our case, two members of the building committee formed their own subcommittee.  They devised a plan to rebuild within our budget.  The plan was adopted and put into action.

Beth Israel's recovery story is bolstered by the generosity of others.  Beauvoir United Methodist Church opened its social hall to the congregation, so Friday night Shabbat services could still be held.  Keesler Air Force Base opened its chapel to CBI for its High Holidays services.  And friends from around North America made financial contributions to south Mississippi's Jewish community, so it had the necessary funds to rebuild.

Over the weekend, Beth Israel opened its new house of worship.  And the adage, "If you build it, they will come," proved to be very true.  Just like other churches that rebuilt after the storm, attendance at the dedication, and the first services far exceeded expectations.  It was a wonderful  and moving time for the members of Beth Israel.  We were all filled with joy, excitement, and hope.  Our families once again have a real sanctuary where they can feel at home.   The future is very bright at Congregation Beth Israel.

What we accomplished is what so many other churches have accomplished the last three-and-a-half years.  We've all worked together to restore our houses of worship.

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