New Orleans has jazz back; now it needs its Jews too

While much of New Orleans is rebuilding, those Jews who left the city in the wake of the storm - about one-third of the community - haven't returned.

new orleans88 (photo credit: )
new orleans88
(photo credit: )
Two years after Katrina, The Big Easy wants its Jews back. When the Category 5 hurricane - the sixth-most powerful ever recorded - smashed through the city famous for jazz and revelry in the summer of 2005, it devastated not only the major port city of 1.5 million, but also its 10,000-strong Jewish community. While much of New Orleans is rebuilding, those Jews who left the city in the wake of the storm - about one-third of the community - haven't returned. The blow has meant the loss of membership, donors and leaders. The Orthodox community was particularly hard hit, since the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue stood in one of the worst-flooded areas. Young families in particular, their kids temporarily enrolled in schools where they've escaped to, have settled elsewhere, causing a severe drop in day school enrollment. "Everyone has a Katrina story," remarks Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, "since 80 percent of all houses were damaged." But, says Weil, an Israeli who made aliya from England in the 1970s and took on the federation's leadership in October, the community's devastation has made it "stronger and extraordinarily resistant. It's a smaller community now, but it has greater continuity, more involvement, higher attendance at events. At Hanukka time, we had a Debby Friedman concert with the same number of attendees as two years before, when there were more Jews here." Weil, barely eight months at his new post, is an economist who has developed strategies for urban renewal for, among other places, the city of Jerusalem, and most recently was a research fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. Millions of dollars have poured into the community over the past two years from national Jewish organizations in an effort to keep the community's eight synagogues and 11 communal institutions afloat in the hardest times. But that relief funding will come to an end by the end of 2007, and the community has spent the past year working on a broad strategy to restore the community to its former self, and beyond. With 150 people working in five task forces to come up with a new plan for the community, the new focus has energized the entire community. Last year, the community hired a strategist, and now has embarked on its new strategy. The linchpin of the renewal effort is an absorption package for Jews who chose to move to New Orleans, an idea modeled off of Israel's sal klita (absorption benefits basket). The package includes a $2,500 moving grant, a $15,000 business or house purchase loan that is interest-free if paid over five years, and a year's free membership at any synagogue and institutions such as the JCC and the National Council of Jewish Women. The community will also help the newcomers with their job search and business networking. Why should a Jewish family, especially a young one, come to New Orleans? Weil immediately offers his explanation of why New Orleans offers "a rich Jewish life" in "one of the greatest cities in America." "First, this is southern Jewry, which for a former Englishman like myself came as a shock. These people are intensely Jewish. Most are from Germany and Alsace, and these are Reform Jews who are very serious, very frum (fervent), about being Reform. Synagogue attendance is much higher than in most cities in America. "Second, the Jewish community is very well integrated into the wider community. The Jews are well known in the communal leadership. The best private non-Jewish high school has a strong Jewish origin, and the largest hospital in New Orleans is a former Jewish hospital and has a Jewish board and president. Jews are integrated into the city. "And third, there's a new spirit in the city. There's a big community coming back, and the Jews are at the forefront of it all. There are jobs to be had, and a great cultural life to enjoy."