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
The New Orleans (sometimes referred to as “NOLA” or New Orleans,
LA) Jewish community epitomizes the notion of finding strength in
Admittedly, there do seem to be two kinds of Jews in New Orleans, the
Jews (people I’d meet in shops who upon discovering that I was from
volunteered that they were Jewish or had Jewish friends or had an
someday visiting Israel) and the involved Jews.
Involved Jews in the Big
Easy are both highly organized and extremely proactive. In fact, overall
would have to say that the New Orleans Jewish community has taken an
role in the city’s rebuilding. Not only has it repeatedly helped with
reconstruction of some of the city’s badly damaged neighborhoods (as in
hands-on assistance in St. Bernard Parish), it has not taken the exit of
(reportedly up to 25 percent of its original 12,000 Jewish population)
members sitting down.
When following the hurricane’s touchdown, it became
clear that some Jewish professionals would not be returning to the area,
Jewish federation got to work. Where there were gaps in staffing, it
acted to find new and qualified personnel. Thus, since Hurricane Katrina
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
new Orthodox rabbi Uri Topolsky took a noteworthy and symbolic stance
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
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
synagogue and organization dues, loans and moving grants.
The New Orleans
area has nine synagogues covering the range of Jewish observance – from
to Reform. NOLA also has two Chabad houses and a Hillel at Tulane
The federation has logically been trying to attract young families and
to the area. This is no easy task, however, especially when it comes to
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
its leadership training programs. Overall, the feeling is one of sharing
than antagonism, a sense that we are all in this together.
of this sharing immediately come to mind. In one case, the Reform
Gates of Prayer lent space to Beth Israel to allow the Orthodox
continue functioning after the hurricane. Later, Gates of Prayer sold
its property to Beth Israel so it could rebuild.
Another dramatic example
of cooperation is seen in Project Avodah or the Jewish Service Corps.
functioning about two years ago. In this program, Jewish young adults
direct service to existing local organizations and to residents in New
While busy enough with its own issues, the
post-Katrina federation has not forgotten its connection to Israel. It
sponsored a number of missions, the latest being in May. Not
mission participants are said to have found their “soul mates” in Sderot
Unfortunately, not enough people know that the accomplishments
of this Jewish community date back hundreds of years. Take for example,
recently highlighted successes of the talented but strange Judah
In May, the Louisiana State Archives (in Baton Rouge) mounted
an exhibition commemorating Benjamin’s achievements. Of Sephardi
managed to have such a prestigious law and diplomatic career in both the
England that he has been labeled a “court Jew,” “the brains of the
and the “Confederate Henry Kissinger.”
At a young age, Benjamin began
practicing law in Louisiana. He excelled as a wheeler-dealer in matters
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
slaves. After the Confederacy was defeated, he fled to England, where he
a successful barrister. Unfortunately, as he had all his personal papers
we are left to speculate about this enigmatic figure’s views.
GARDEN DISTRICT, you can walk past the Payne Strachan House where
Davis, Judah Benjamin’s Confederate president died on December 6, 1889.
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,
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
htm). Located in
Marrero, this lovely nature preserve is a short drive from the city. It
visitor center, swamps, wildlife, footpaths, boardwalk, walks with
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
(Note: Even the visitor center of the National Park Service bears
his name). Reportedly, Lafitte and his followers frequented the
swamplands to either stage raids or to store their booty. In 1815, a
but somewhat desperate American commander named Andrew Jackson hired
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
Oddly enough, with all the recent interest in oldtime pirates,
it has come to light that Jean Lafitte was of Sephardi descent (see
Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the
, p. 253-4).
In the Uptown
area, there is the William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz.
treasure trove is located in Jones Hall on the Tulane University
Knowledgeable on-duty staff members are truly happy to assist
visitors. I spent a wonderful few hours listening to early klezmer and
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
bakery chain) serving kosher food. Check out Casablanca at 3030 Severn
(504) 888- 2209 (kashrut supervision – Chabad L.KC.) and Kosher Cajun
Deli and Grocery at 3519 Severn Avenue, (504) 888-2010 (kashrut
Louisiana Kashrut Committee, glatt kosher).
Unfortunately, for tourists,
they are located in neighboring Metairie, rather than in New Orleans
(Note: the Jewish community center and about half the congregations are
in Metairie.) Finally, here is a rundown of New Orleans congregations:
Sfard (Orthodox), 2230 Carondelet Street, (504) 529-3149
(http://www.anshesfard.com/); Temple Sinai (Reform), 6227 St. Charles,
861-3693 (http://www.templesinaino.org/); Touro Synagogue (Reform), 4238
Charles, (504) 895-4843 (http://www.tourosynagogue.com/); Chabad-Uptown
(Orthodox), 1216 Broadway between Plum and Oak (temporary), (504)
Here is a rundown of the
congregations in greater New Orleans: Beth Israel (Orthodox), 4000 West
Esplanade Avenue, Metairie, (504) 454-5080
Gates of Prayer (Reform), 4000 West Esplanade Avenue, Metairie, (504)
(http://www.gatesofprayer.org/); Shir Chadash (Conservative), 37 West
Avenue, Metairie, (504) 889-1144 (http://www.shirchadash.org/);
Jewish Congregation (Reform), 1403 North Causeway Boulevard, Mandeville,
951-7976 (http://www.northshorejewish.org); Chabad-Metairie (Orthodox)
Esplanade Avenue, (504) 454- 2910 (http://www.jewishlouisiana.com/).