New Orleans Jews seek renaissance
Gail Naron Chalew
The Jewish community of New Orleans has used the two years since
Hurricane Katrina not only to recover from the devastation but also to
plot the course for what it hopes will be a future renaissance.
NEW ORLEANS (JTA) -- The Jewish community of New Orleans has used the
two years since Hurricane Katrina not only to recover from the devastation
but also to plot the course for what it hopes will be a future
Key to this revitalization is a program of grants and
incentives to lure 1,000 Jewish individuals and families to the area from
around the country. This program is the first fruit of an intensive
planning process that has involved several hundred members of the Jewish
When Katrina struck in late August, 2005, the nearly 10,000 Jews in the
community were hit hard, as was the rest of New Orleans. The massive
hurricane damaged 80 percent of their homes, 70 percent of their
businesses and several key community institutions.
Since then, the Jewish communal infrastructure has largely been
sustained by more than $20 million in donations from the United Jewish
Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the
the national religious movements, along with donations from hundreds of
individual synagogues, federations and donors.
But as of December
2007, the New Orleans Jewish community, which has lost about 30 percent of
its members, must stand on its own two feet.
Michael Weil, a
strategic planner drawn from Israel to head the Jewish Federation of
Greater New Orleans, says the challenge is immense but the community is
determined to look ahead.
“There is no sense in going back to where we were before the storm. We
have the opportunity now to make past dreams and new dreams of a vibrant
Jewish New Orleans come true.”
Early evidence suggests that the
Jewish community is rising to the challenge. The federation’s current
annual campaign, the first since Katrina, is on track to raise more than
$2.6 million, compared to the $2.8 million raised among significantly more
members in the last pre-Katrina campaign.
Plans are under way to
centralize services, share space and eliminate overlaps among community
institutions. “Everyone is sitting around the table now; there is
wall-to-wall collaboration,” Weil says. One example is that a discussion
in under way to merge the community day school and the Chabad-Lubavitch
The federation has hired a grant writer and has engaged
an Israeli public relations firm to do marketing on a pro bono basis,
branding New Orleans as a “pioneering, exciting, and fun community,” in
The incentive package to attract newcomers will include housing and
business loans, moving grants, scholarships to the community day school,
free or reduced membership at synagogues and local Jewish organizations,
and a job searching network.
Funded mostly by outside philanthropists, the incentive program is
headed by Nathan Rothstein, himself a newcomer to the community.
During his senior year at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he
came to New Orleans on a Hillel-sponsored volunteer mission, experienced
the needs firsthand, and knew that “here was a place where I could take on
a leadership role and have an immediate impact.”
To guide the
federation in its planning efforts, Louisiana State University sociologist
Rick Weil last fall surveyed both current residents and those who had
relocated elsewhere. After the summer, he will be conducting a full-scale
His results of last fall’s survey were
surprisingly favorable, indicating that those who are back are likely to
stay and that only 15 percent of those who have left are very unlikely to
“The Jewish community is showing a huge amount of
toughness,” the professor says. “According to every measure of stress --
trouble sleeping or concentrating, worrying and eating too much -- they
are experiencing way more than under normal circumstances. And the more
damage they sustained to their homes or businesses, the more
“Yet, at the same time, they are showing great resilience.
One interesting finding is that the one form of support that was
consistently effective in helping people cope with stress was regular
Weil found in his survey that most people
are optimistic that New Orleans will recover. Although 40 percent of
respondents reported receiving job offers in other communities, many of
those decided to stay in New Orleans.
At the same time, the
reported brain drain of many professionals from the city has not occurred
in the Jewish community. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals have
returned in the same proportion as the rest of the Jewish
But whether Jewish New Orleans will indeed experience a
renaissance will depend on the ability of the community to retain its
current residents and attract new ones.
Understanding that the
Jewish community cannot flourish if the levees are not strengthened and
the soaring crime rate does not decline, many New Orleanian Jews have
become community activists.
As Shellye Farber, an accountant and
the past president of the New Orleans section of the National Council of
Jewish Women, put it: “Ultimately, we cannot control those larger issues.
What we can control is making Jewish New Orleans a more attractive and
exciting place to be.”
Rabbi Uri Topolsky, the former associate
rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, will be another
key player in that effort. He moved to New Orleans this summer with his
wife Dahlia and two children to become the rabbi at Congregation Beth
Israel, the Orthodox congregation that was flooded by 10 feet of water
just two years ago.
He is launching his own recruitment campaign
geared to Orthodox Jewish families. Its tagline quotes Rabbi Nachman of
Breslov, the 18th century Chasidic leader: “If you believe in the ability
to destroy, you can believe in the ability to rebuild.”