Not down, not out

Five years after Katrina, the New Orleans Jewish community has taken an aggressive role in the city’s rebuilding.

By DEBORAH RUBIN FIELDS
July 23, 2010 15:33
Not down, not out

New Orleans evacuation 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

Probably all of us have heard the expression “the South shall rise again.” When it comes to the New Orleans Jewish community, however, it would be incorrect to say this resilient community was even down. August marks five years since Hurricane Katrina lashed out against New Orleans (and other vast areas of the southern United States), but this Jewish community is definitely “still in the ring.”

The New Orleans (sometimes referred to as “NOLA” or New Orleans, LA) Jewish community epitomizes the notion of finding strength in adversity. Admittedly, there do seem to be two kinds of Jews in New Orleans, the “closet” Jews (people I’d meet in shops who upon discovering that I was from Israel, volunteered that they were Jewish or had Jewish friends or had an interest in someday visiting Israel) and the involved Jews.

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Involved Jews in the Big Easy are both highly organized and extremely proactive. In fact, overall one would have to say that the New Orleans Jewish community has taken an aggressive role in the city’s rebuilding. Not only has it repeatedly helped with the reconstruction of some of the city’s badly damaged neighborhoods (as in its hands-on assistance in St. Bernard Parish), it has not taken the exit of some (reportedly up to 25 percent of its original 12,000 Jewish population) of its members sitting down.

When following the hurricane’s touchdown, it became clear that some Jewish professionals would not be returning to the area, the Jewish federation got to work. Where there were gaps in staffing, it quickly acted to find new and qualified personnel. Thus, since Hurricane Katrina struck, new rabbis have assumed pulpits at Touro Synagogue, Northshore Jewish Congregation and Beth Israel.

ONCE THE COMMUNITY rolled up its sleeves, changes occurred right away. It might be hard for us to appreciate from a distance, but for Big Easy tourists and local pastry connoisseurs, Beth Israel’s new Orthodox rabbi Uri Topolsky took a noteworthy and symbolic stance when, shortly after arriving in NOLA, he awarded kashrut certification to the world-famous beignets of Café du Monde. (The main store in the French Market is at 800 Decatur Street, (504) 525- 4544, while five other stores are located in greater New Orleans.) Since 2007, the New Orleans Jewish Federation has been offering a newcomers’ package which bears a striking resemblance to Israel’s new immigrants’ absorption basket of benefits. If a new resident qualifies, he or she is entitled to financial assistance covering synagogue and organization dues, loans and moving grants.

The New Orleans area has nine synagogues covering the range of Jewish observance – from Orthodox to Reform. NOLA also has two Chabad houses and a Hillel at Tulane University. The federation has logically been trying to attract young families and singles to the area. This is no easy task, however, especially when it comes to young, unattached Jewish adults.

While Hillel is eclectic in its orientation, it serves college students.

Chabad is open to all, but its orientation is, by nature, traditional.

So the Jewish federation is working hard to provide a viable outlet for young adults through both its social programs and its leadership training programs. Overall, the feeling is one of sharing rather than antagonism, a sense that we are all in this together.

Two examples of this sharing immediately come to mind. In one case, the Reform congregation Gates of Prayer lent space to Beth Israel to allow the Orthodox synagogue to continue functioning after the hurricane. Later, Gates of Prayer sold some of its property to Beth Israel so it could rebuild.

Another dramatic example of cooperation is seen in Project Avodah or the Jewish Service Corps. JSC began functioning about two years ago. In this program, Jewish young adults provide direct service to existing local organizations and to residents in New Orleans’s low-income communities.

While busy enough with its own issues, the post-Katrina federation has not forgotten its connection to Israel. It has sponsored a number of missions, the latest being in May. Not surprisingly, some mission participants are said to have found their “soul mates” in Sderot residents.

Unfortunately, not enough people know that the accomplishments of this Jewish community date back hundreds of years. Take for example, the recently highlighted successes of the talented but strange Judah Benjamin.

In May, the Louisiana State Archives (in Baton Rouge) mounted an exhibition commemorating Benjamin’s achievements. Of Sephardi descent, he managed to have such a prestigious law and diplomatic career in both the US and England that he has been labeled a “court Jew,” “the brains of the Confederacy” and the “Confederate Henry Kissinger.”

At a young age, Benjamin began practicing law in Louisiana. He excelled as a wheeler-dealer in matters dealing with the railroads.

He owned well over 100 slaves on his Belle Chasse Plantation. But by the time he advanced to become Jefferson Davis’s attorney-general, secretary of war and secretary of state, he no longer owned slaves. After the Confederacy was defeated, he fled to England, where he became a successful barrister. Unfortunately, as he had all his personal papers burned, we are left to speculate about this enigmatic figure’s views.

IN THE GARDEN DISTRICT, you can walk past the Payne Strachan House where Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin’s Confederate president died on December 6, 1889. In front of the house, there is a stone marker which briefly outlines his life. (Suggestion: For more on the history of New Orleans’s Jewish community, read the capsulated report on the Web site of Touro Synagogue, http://www.tourosynagogue.com/aboutus/history/.)There are a few other Jewish gems that may not be known by the general public. For instance, one hidden treasure with a Jewish connection is the Barataria Preserve (http://www.nps.gov/jela/baratariapreserve.

htm). Located in Marrero, this lovely nature preserve is a short drive from the city. It has a visitor center, swamps, wildlife, footpaths, boardwalk, walks with rangers and canoe rental (from private companies).

To area residents, it is known as the Jean Lafitte Park.

In New Orleans, Lafitte is somewhat of a folk hero.

(Note: Even the visitor center of the National Park Service bears his name). Reportedly, Lafitte and his followers frequented the Barataria swamplands to either stage raids or to store their booty. In 1815, a reluctant but somewhat desperate American commander named Andrew Jackson hired Lafitte and his mercenary gang to help fight the British. This was a smart move, as apparently Lafitte’s geographic knowledge turned the tide in the Battle of New Orleans.

Oddly enough, with all the recent interest in oldtime pirates, it has come to light that Jean Lafitte was of Sephardi descent (see Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, p. 253-4).

In the Uptown area, there is the William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz. This treasure trove is located in Jones Hall on the Tulane University campus.

Knowledgeable on-duty staff members are truly happy to assist visitors. I spent a wonderful few hours listening to early klezmer and jazz albums which the librarian located in the stacks. The main campus entrance is at St. Charles Avenue across from Audubon Park. (For more information, see http://www.tulane.edu/~lmiller/JazzHome.html.) In addition, you won’t have to go hungry in New Orleans, as there are a few places (besides the Café du Monde bakery chain) serving kosher food. Check out Casablanca at 3030 Severn Avenue, (504) 888- 2209 (kashrut supervision – Chabad L.KC.) and Kosher Cajun New York Deli and Grocery at 3519 Severn Avenue, (504) 888-2010 (kashrut supervision – Louisiana Kashrut Committee, glatt kosher).

Unfortunately, for tourists, they are located in neighboring Metairie, rather than in New Orleans proper. (Note: the Jewish community center and about half the congregations are located in Metairie.) Finally, here is a rundown of New Orleans congregations: Anshe Sfard (Orthodox), 2230 Carondelet Street, (504) 529-3149 (http://www.anshesfard.com/); Temple Sinai (Reform), 6227 St. Charles, (504) 861-3693 (http://www.templesinaino.org/); Touro Synagogue (Reform), 4238 St. Charles, (504) 895-4843 (http://www.tourosynagogue.com/); Chabad-Uptown (Orthodox), 1216 Broadway between Plum and Oak (temporary), (504) 866-5164 (http://www.chabadneworleans.com/).

Here is a rundown of the congregations in greater New Orleans: Beth Israel (Orthodox), 4000 West Esplanade Avenue, Metairie, (504) 454-5080 (http://www.bethisraelnola.com/); Gates of Prayer (Reform), 4000 West Esplanade Avenue, Metairie, (504) 885-2600 (http://www.gatesofprayer.org/); Shir Chadash (Conservative), 37 West Esplanade Avenue, Metairie, (504) 889-1144 (http://www.shirchadash.org/); Northshore Jewish Congregation (Reform), 1403 North Causeway Boulevard, Mandeville, (985) 951-7976 (http://www.northshorejewish.org); Chabad-Metairie (Orthodox) 4141 West Esplanade Avenue, (504) 454- 2910 (http://www.jewishlouisiana.com/).


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