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N.O. Jewish community has plan for revitalization
by Bruce Nolan, The Times-Picayune
Saturday May 24, 2008, 9:47 PM
Twenty-three and single, Katie Tutwiler is another of those idealistic new post-Katrina New Orleanians.
Reared in New Iberia, she moved to New Orleans fresh out of college last summer, tugged by something like a moral call to join the city's great story of reconstruction.
Although she is only nominally Jewish, Tutwiler has been aggressively courted by the area's Jewish community. It gave her a $1,000 moving grant and offered a year's free dues to a synagogue. It gave her a year's free membership in the Uptown Jewish Community Center and introduced her to other young Jewish newcomers to New Orleans.
The effort may be paying off. Tutwiler, a self-described religious "seeker" shopping for a religious identity, has signed up with Birthright Israel, another Jewish program, which will introduce her to Israel this summer, even as her personal exploration also occasionally includes Catholic Masses.
Tutwiler is in play, so to speak. She thus qualifies as a poster child for the New Orleans Jewish community's year-old "newcomers program," which so far has devoted something like $180,000 for grants and loans to recruit young Jews to rebuild the city's Jewish community, and the larger city as well.
That is but one of the initiatives in a five-year "strategic plan" New Orleans Jews recently fashioned, an effort rare if not unique among local ethnic communities.
It is a $24 million blueprint for revitalizing a small but sturdy community that had been shrinking and graying even before Katrina made landfall in 2005.
The plan's first goal is to recruit young Jews to New Orleans and nourish them here.
The newcomers program is the centerpiece so far. But plans are afoot to fashion incentives to retain each year at least 50 of the area's 400 to 500 Jewish college graduates, said Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
With these and other tools, Jewish leaders hope newcomers find a home in a rather atypical New Orleans Jewish community, one that a survey confirmed is simultaneously quite lax about some markers of Jewish life -- regular religious observance, for example -- yet in other ways fiercely committed to its Jewish identity, affiliating with synagogues or giving to Jewish causes.
Besides recruiting, there are 11 goals in the community's new strategic plan, said Weil, one of its architects. Among them:
Maintaining ties with an estimated 3,500 permanently dislocated Jewish New Orleanians
Building support systems to nourish Jewish families living here
Fostering local collaboration among Jewish institutions
Developing Jewish education
Developing local and national fundraising, as well as a national public relations campaign.
"It's ambitious, it's doable and we're going to make it happen," said Weil, an economist and strategic planner who worked in Israel before he was hired by the federation in 2006.
Recruiting a seeker
The newcomers program that aided Tutwiler so far has distributed incentives to some 116 Jewish individuals or families, said Jennifer Samuels, who helps run the program.
Weil estimated the total number of Jewish newcomers, including those who didn't apply for incentives or haven't yet been identified, at closer to 850.
Tutwiler said her decision to come to New Orleans was born out of a desire to join a wounded but still fascinating community, and was not triggered by the financial incentives package.
Indeed, as the daughter of an Episcopalian father and a nonobservant Jewish mother, she said she grew up in a home with no strong religious influence.
Tutwiler said her exposure to Jewish tradition was so slight -- consider that her birth name is Mary Catherine -- that she knows only the opening phrases to a few common Hebrew prayers, and little else. Until recently, she did not know there was a synagogue in her native New Iberia.
"I'm Jewish but not quite in the fold," she said.
Tutwiler heard about the Jewish incentives program from her grandmother, Catherine Kahn, a New Orleanian and board member at Temple Sinai, who urged Tutwiler to check it out.
Now Tutwiler sometimes accompanies her grandmother to temple, a starting point from which Tutwiler has begun to inquire about her Jewish heritage.
In that sense she is quite typical, Weil said.
"There's a pattern here" among newcomers, Weil said. "They tend to be on the margins of mainstream Jewish life. These are not your regular synagogue-goers. Their Judaism is more virtual than real. They're less actively involved.
"But they're motivated. They see themselves as pioneers."
He said their willingness to help rebuild the city often is part of a deeply Jewish imperative toward public service called "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world."
Numbers had dwindled
The day Katrina made landfall, the area's Jewish community was already significantly smaller than it had been three decades earlier, Weil said.
A newly revised figure estimates the pre-Katrina Jewish population at about 9,500, or less than 1 percent of the metro area population, down from an estimated 13,000 nearly 25 years ago.
"You'd think that when you're hit with a major disaster it would knock you flat and you wouldn't have the strength to get up again," Weil said.
"But what this community has said is we're not accepting that. We think we're important, and we have a future, and we intend to go to some significant place, and we'll do whatever it takes to get there."
Research for the federation by LSU sociologist Frederick Weil and others estimated that Katrina reduced the area's Jewish population from 9,500 just before the storm to about 6,000 in the summer of 2006. They believe the number rebounded to 7,000 to 8,000 in early 2008.
At the same time, a few key leadership posts in the community are turning over at an extraordinary rate: For different reasons, three of six major local synagogues are under new post-Katrina leadership, or soon will be. Weil is a post-storm recruit to the federation, and Hillel, the Jewish outreach to Tulane University students, is about to get a new director.
As Katrina's third anniversary approaches, the city's 19 synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been weaned from $16 million in rescue subsidies national Jewish groups provided through the end of 2007, Weil said.
All survived. Most are smaller.
Slowly growing back
Most leaders, such as Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, see near-term futures in which they have to scale back some activities, or rely more on projects that involve collaboration with others.
But even so, Loewy and other community leaders say their institutions have stabilized on new footings from which they intend to mount a recovery.
Some even exhibit signs of relative vigor.
Two Reform congregations, Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue, although 8 percent and 10 percent smaller in their membership, respectively, recently elected to continue multimillion-dollar capital projects that had been on the books before the storm.
"If you had asked me two and a half years ago if our losses would've been this low, no one would have predicted it," said Rabbi Andrew Busch, who will soon leave the Touro pulpit for a larger Baltimore synagogue.
The area's Jewish leaders agree that the 35 percent or so of displaced New Orleans Jews include some of the community's elder elite, including many of its most reliable donors. But sociologist Weil's research found a good deal of residual prosperity: Working from income disclosures from 60 percent of 800 respondents to his survey, Weil estimated a mean family income of $180,000 annually, although he cautioned that figure might be high.
As a result of the financial strength of the local families, Michael Weil, the federation executive, said that organization's annual communitywide fundraising drive last year raised $2.7 million, or only 6 percent less than the 2005 drive.
Busch said the community's recovery owes a lot to local Jews' unusually high rates of affiliation with synagogues and other institutions.
Those affiliations heightened a self-protective sense of identity, most leaders agreed.
"That tells me we're moving ahead positively," Loewy said. "We may not have the same numbers of people, but we have people who care about the institution and who want to be involved," at least through financial support.
"I think people felt the synagogue, the Jewish community, stepped up for them when they needed it."
Bruce Nolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3344
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