From recovery to renaissance: New Orleans Jews look ahead

The Jewish communal infrastructure in New Orleans has largely been sustained by more than $20 million in donations from the United Jewish Communities and other bodies.

New-Orleans-224-88 (photo credit: Courtesy JTA)
(photo credit: Courtesy 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 renaissance. 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 community. 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 day school. 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 Weil's words. 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 demographic study. 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 return. "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 stress. "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 synagogue attendance." 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 community. 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."