NEW ORLEANS – “There are Jews in New Orleans?” I was often asked when I told
people I was going to the Big Easy for the Jewish Federations of North America’s
General Assembly. The question came not only from Israelis but from friends and
family in the US, who are a little bit more familiar with the wealth of Jewish
communities spread throughout the country. “There are Jews everywhere,” I would
It might come as a surprise to some but the Jewish community in
New Orleans predates most other parts of North America. Take a walk down Canal
Street, a lively thoroughfare which has one of the city’s iconic streetcar lines
running through its center, and you’ll come across many signs bearing names like
Rubenstein’s department store and Meyer’s hats. These businesses belonged to
German Jews who began arriving in the US in the middle part of the 19th century
and prospered along the banks of the Mississippi delta. They joined an already
well-established community of Sephardi Jews, who came from even older
communities in the Caribbean. Together, they created a Jewish municipal support
system: synagogues, an orphanage, a hospital. New Orleans has had a Jewish
presence ever since, albeit a relatively small one.
But that continuity
was put in peril when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, flooding
about 80 percent of its neighborhoods.
The destruction spared nothing and
no one, Jew or gentile, church or synagogue.
“We used to have 91
students,” said Bob Berk, head of the school at New Orleans Jewish Community
Center, which teaches children from kindergarten up to eighth grade. “We now
Indeed, many Jewish locals never returned after the disaster.
But others came because of it.
“They’ve come either as social activists
on behalf of Jewish charities to assist in the recovery, or because they
recognized the opportunity to grow in a place looking to rebuild itself,” Carol
Shalita Smokler, governance chair of Repair the World, an organization involved
in revitalizing New Orleans, explained.
Nowadays, there are about 8,000
Jews in New Orleans, still not as many as before the hurricane. But there is
reason for some optimism: Whereas there used to be four Jewish congregations
before Katrina, there are currently six.
SO WHAT WAS the GA all about
this year? First, there were a large number of interesting issues being
Minorities Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman and Bronfman
Philanthropies head Jeffrey Solomon spoke about why they believed the well-being
of Israeli Arabs is a Jewish issue.
US Vice President Joe Biden tried to
make up for the controversy which arose during his last visit to Israel – in
which he was confronted by, and rebuked, plans for new Jewish construction in
eastern Jerusalem – by delivering an unequivocally supportive
Young participants were given a voice this year. Web
entrepreneurs like Yonatan Ben-Dor, who has launched a site dedicated to
childhood giving, and Margot Stern, whose runs an online forum, sort of a Jewish
version of TED, spoke at events. And the young leadership cochairs Steven Scheck
and Alice Varislov introduced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the
The prime minister is an expert in how to communicate with an
American audience and pushed all the right buttons in his address.
thing he didn’t speak about? The conversion bill, at least not legislation pass,
though. Either way, he managed to get away with it and conversion did not become
a major issue.
But any account of the conference without reference to the
heckling by activists of Jewish Voices for Peace, a leftist group involved in
attempts to break the blockade on Gaza and relocate the planned Museum of
Tolerance in Jerusalem, would be incomplete. The incident in which they
interrupted Netanyahu was very troubling to those who witnessed it. One by one,
protesters stood up on chairs with pre-made signs. “The loyalty oath
delegitimizes Israel,” one shouted. “The occupation delegitimizes Israel,”
There were five in all. A security guard said two of them – a young female and an elderly man – were taken away quietly. (JVP said, however, that all protesters were "young".) Every time another protester appeared the crowd became less patient with the party crashers. Chants of “am Yisrael chai” and “Bibi, Bibi” started up spontaneously. In perhaps the ugliest incident, a protester resisted being carried out, jumping over rows of chairs trying to evade security. He was wrestled down by a combination of guards and vigilante members of the audience and carried out kicking and screaming.
“I saw him later, he was pretty roughed up,” Ehud Hechtman, a
security guard who witnessed the event, said.
JTA’s Jacob Berkman
reported that he saw one audience member put a female protester in a
Amid the drama, only Netanyahu seemed unfazed.
talking about delegitimization, they’ve got the wrong address,“ he said and
received a tremendous round of applause from the delegates.
incident I decided to gauge whether the protest reflected a larger sentiment in
the audience, especially among youth. I found a group of Orthodox college
students who agreed to weigh in their opinion. There was no anger in their
voices, but rather disappointment.
“If we allow five butt-heads to hijack
the message here by standing on chairs with their homemade signs we’re failing
our roles as ambassadors to Israel,” Daniel Friedman, a student at the
University of California at San Diego, said.
Later that day I spoke to
left-leaning seculars, who said they felt ambivalence about the
They oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the loyalty
oath, and wished JFNA addressed such issues. Most of them, however, said that
while they may agree with the issues raised, the form of the protest was
NOT TO end on a somber note, there were many uplifting moments
at this year’s GA as well.
David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the
critically acclaimed television show, gave a candid and heartfelt speech.
Choking back the tears, he spoke about growing up in a house with a father who
was a deeply committed Jewish professional who worked for B’nai
He commended JFNA for raising $28 million for New Orleans, but
urged the Jewish community to do more. Sadly, few people stuck around after
Biden’s speech to hear him. Luckily, he agreed to an interview with The
Jerusalem Post, which will appear in full next week.
And then there was
astronaut Garrett Reisman, who came to the conference as a guest of Limmud FSU,
an organization promoting Jewish education among Russian-speakers, and who
nearly stole the show. The diminutive Reisman was given a shout out by Netanyahu
from the stage during his speech, asking him if he would agree to make
Reisman didn’t miss a beat. He got on stage and gave the prime
minister his answer. “For a decision like that even an astronaut has to ask his
wife,” he said.