Annie Tucker is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program  (Class 12) and Associate Rabbi of The Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation located in Princeton, NJ.  From 2005-2006, Annie served as student rabbi to congregation Beth Israel in Biloxi, MS, witnessing some of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina firsthand.  She may be reached at

Every so often a very special thing happens at the bi-weekly meeting of the Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.  For years this small community, located in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward, would ring a church-bell whenever there was a death in the parish, a way of notifying the neighbors and honoring the memory of the deceased, but after the many losses associated with Hurricane Katrina this custom fell into disuse.   Today, the Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church tolls its bell for one reason only, and rather than signaling distress this cause instead heralds great celebration.  The church rings its bell each time a resident finally returns home!

Earlier this month I had the privilege of traveling to New Orleans, Louisiana, with my synagogue’s graduating class of 10th grade Hebrew High students.  Volunteering through the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, our young people spent three days working at the soon-to-be-new home of Ms. Mary, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward whose house was destroyed over five years ago by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.   Planting flowers, clearing debris, and building a fence around the perimeter of Ms. Mary’s property, my students worked alongside local residents and volunteers and had the opportunity to hear the stories of these incredible individuals.  We also heard a great deal about the special community to which these resilient spirits were able to return.

As many of us well know, the Lower Ninth Ward was perhaps the hardest hit by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, with nearly 100% of local homes and businesses sustaining significant damage or destruction in the wake of the levee breaks.  Since then, fewer than 3,500 of the 17,000 residents formerly living in this area have returned and those who have continue to face considerable challenges.  Infrastructure in the Lower Ninth Ward is severely lacking, with no sustained police or fire presence, hospitals and schools unable to re-open, a dearth of local grocery stores and sanitation services, and a climbing crime rate as squatters move onto abandoned properties.  Sex offenders, legally barred from living within a certain distance of places where children congregate, have entered the neighborhood in droves as the lack of local schools gives them wide latitude to settle without restriction.  Driving through the streets of dilapidated homes and unrelenting blight, it is hard to believe that Katrina hit over a half-decade ago.

Despite these obstacles, the neon green shirts of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association proudly proclaim “We Are Back and Rebuilding” and the church-bell keeps tolling!  Returning residents find strength and resilience in community agencies like Holy Cross that help to facilitate their transition back to the area, in the encouragement of friends and family members who have already resettled, and in the kindness of volunteers from around the country whose presence in New Orleans signals hope and possibility.  It was a great privilege to witness the journeys of some of these individuals and to support them, in ways however small, as they rejoined their neighborhood.

Hurricane Katrina may no longer dominate national media, but the needs of this extraordinary community remain as urgent as ever. 

May the church-bells of Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church keep ringing!