Katrina Leaves Behind Stronger Jewish Community

Katrina Leaves Behind Stronger Jewish Community

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

The Jewish Community Center of New Orleans had trouble in August 2005. Its location in suburban Metairie, a building shared with the city’s Jewish Day School and Federation, was so underused that its closure was under consideration.

Ten years later, JCC membership in Metairie has risen from 300 to 800 families, and the JCC is trying to raise as much as $8 million to expand its main location in Uptown New Orleans by almost a third to accommodate growth from 1,900 to 2,600 member families, sold-out day camps, and a preschool that fills every spare space in the building.

Leslie Fischman, an 18-year New Orleans JCC veteran who has been the executive director for five years, says Jewish New Orleans is stronger than ever.
Leslie Fischman, an 18-year New Orleans JCC veteran who has been the executive director for five years, says Jewish New Orleans is stronger than ever.

Before Katrina, JCC Executive Director Leslie Fischman said, “we wouldn’t have dreamed that we would be now outgrowing this facility.”

The improved fortunes for one of the city’s most visible institutions reflect the renewal of the Jewish community as a whole in the decade since Hurricane Katrina struck the city Aug. 29, 2005, and failed levees left three-quarters of New Orleans underwater.

“The community’s better for it since Katrina,” Fischman said. “We’re working at keeping our strength.”

The core of old-line Jewish New Orleans lies along a 1½-mile stretch of St. Charles Avenue from one Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, to another, Temple Sinai, which is across the street from Loyola University and a long block from the first taste of New Orleans for thousands of Jews, Tulane University.

The Uptown JCC, at the site of a former orphanage, is midway between the synagogues. An old Jewish cemetery is two blocks from the JCC and two blocks off St. Charles toward the river.

While most of the city flooded at the end of August — the century-old Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, and its Lakeview neighborhood were under 8 feet of water — that “sliver by the river” of Jewish life and history was high and dry by New Orleans standards. Wind caused some destruction and created openings for rain to produce water damage, but the lack of flooding helped turn the JCC from the center of the Jewish community into a center of the general community’s recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ran relief efforts from the center, whose fitness center was the first in the city to reopen, providing some normalcy and a place to shower.

Fischman said a communal turning point came Dec. 20, 2005, when the center hosted glass artist Gary Rosenthal for a community Chanukah celebration and homecoming at which gifts created around the country were presented to city residents and the center served more than 500 free spaghetti dinners. She keeps a menorah from that event on display in her office.

As few as 2,000 Jews were back in New Orleans that fall, down from 9,500 before the storm. Once most of the people who were coming back returned by early 2006, the Jewish population was about 6,000, said Michael Weil, an Israeli who was hired as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Katrina Leaves Behind Stronger Jewish Community 2
Congregation Gates of Prayer welcomed not only homeless Congregation Beth Israel after the storm, but also a Unitarian church that held Sunday services there.

“I barely knew where New Orleans was on a map,” said Weil, who was recruited from the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem for his strategic planning expertise.

He said the traumatized community didn’t know how to move forward but was determined to do so because New Orleans and its Jewish community were worth saving. The Jewish organizations put aside politics and territorialism to move forward together.

A nine-month effort involving 250 people crafted a five-year strategic plan for building and renewal, and the community began implementing the plan before it was even finished. Weil said he accomplished what he wanted to do in New Orleans within four years, but like so many others who have moved to the city the past decade, he has no plans to leave.

The flagship of the renewal effort is the Jewish Newcomers Program, which offers financial incentives such as rental and moving assistance and free membership in a synagogue and the JCC to encourage Jews to give New Orleans a chance.

“We didn’t want to buy anybody,” Weil said, and the money was not enough to motivate a move to the city. But for young professionals following the trend of moving south from the Northeast and Midwest, the incentives provided a reason to consider New Orleans.

The active program also ensures that the newcomers have contact with Jewish institutions from the start, something growing Jewish communities such as Atlanta haven’t achieved.

Some 2,500 Jews have moved to New Orleans through the program the past eight years, Weil said. Partially as a result, the community now has 10,300 Jews and is growing by 200 to 300 a year.

Physical signs back up the numbers. Near Tulane University, both Hillel and Chabad have new homes. The city has half a dozen kosher restaurants. A Jewish museum is being planned, as is a community mikvah to join the concentration of Jewish facilities in suburban Metairie.

Within a few miles along West Esplanade Avenue are the Kosher Cajun deli, Conservative Congregation Shir Chadash, the combined day school/Federation/JCC building and a Chabad center.

Highlighting the community’s new spirit of cooperation is the block of West Esplanade shared by the Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer and relocated Orthodox Beth Israel.

Beth Israel accepted an offer to share space with Gates of Prayer and stayed until it opened a building in August 2012 on land it bought from Gates of Prayer.

The congregation properties flow into each other in the area of the preschool and playground, and people and activities move between the buildings, said Rabbi Robert Loewy, who has led Gates of Prayer for 31 years. One example is the community Shabbat observance at the biennial LimmudFest, itself a post-Katrina arrival in New Orleans; the fourth New Orleans LimmudFest will be in March.

In a Jewish community of New Orleans’ size, Rabbi Loewy said, family connections and some shared membership between the congregations were always common, but the cooperation in learning, social action and even worship didn’t happen before the storm.

The rabbi sees greater cooperation among all synagogues and communal institutions in post-Katrina Jewish New Orleans. That cooperation, combined with the support of communities such as Atlanta and Houston, helped Jewish New Orleans rebound more quickly than any other local community other than the Vietnamese, Rabbi Loewy said.

“I think we’re all looking to the future with a good sense of optimism,” he said of Jewish organizations.

That optimism is fed by the reversal of the longtime flow of young adults out of New Orleans. Rabbi Loewy said that economy-driven tide began to turn before Katrina and now is a dominant trend. New Orleans’ own young people, even those who go away for college, are staying as adults, and more Tulane students are deciding not to leave.

The influx of young people with their new ideas and new approaches, Rabbi Loewy said, has created “a reinvigorated Jewish community,” including a bit of a baby boom that is giving a boost to Jewish preschools and religious schools.

One newcomer who has contributed to that baby boom is Danielle Levine, recently back to work as the New Orleans director of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps after maternity leave with her second child. Both children were born in New Orleans the past three years.

“Six years ago I was looking for friends in their 20s,” she said. “Now I’m looking for a day school.”

Levine, who grew up in Washington, D.C., moved to the city from San Francisco at the start of 2009 with her New Orleans-native girlfriend, who has since converted to Judaism and married her.

Levine didn’t move to New Orleans because of the Jewish Newcomers Program, but she enrolled and used the free synagogue membership to attend Touro, where she said she instantly fell in love with the diverse, welcoming community.

It was a dramatic contrast to what she experienced in San Francisco, where she bought tickets to Kol Nidre but not Neilah one Yom Kippur and found herself stuck in the lobby, waiting for the final shofar blast. “It was the worst feeling I ever had.”

In New Orleans, she found her way to Avodah through program alumni she met at Limmud, then followed some rabbinic advice to pursue the director’s job when it came open, even though she was using her new master’s degree from Tulane in a job with the mayor’s office.

“I thought I was going in one direction, but when I got here and became immersed in the community and realized how I was spending my time and energy, it became apparent that (Avodah) job could be what I wanted to be doing,” Levine said.

Avodah has a corps of nine to 10 young people per year, and Levine said usually two or three stay in New Orleans. She cited Dana Keren, who arrived with Avodah in 2010 to work with the Tulane Community Health Center and went on to co-found the Birthmark Doula Collective to battle the high infant mortality rate in the black community.

Keren’s ability to quickly make a difference is part of what Levine likes about New Orleans: The city’s small size and big needs lead to openness to new ideas without delays.

That openness, perhaps because of New Orleans’ anything-goes attitude, applies within the Jewish community. During a recent interview, Levine said she had a play date that Sunday with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife, who have a daughter a couple of months older than her first child, and was planning to attend a tot Shabbat at Shir Chadash.

“I have nothing but tremendous respect for this community,” she said.

Traditional Jewish institutions are looking for more examples like Levine.

“I think all of us are anxious to be able to incorporate the newcomers to the community in the established ways that we’ve always done things, as well as new, creative endeavors,” Rabbi Loewy said. The newcomers present a challenge not only because of their lack of connections to institutions, but also because they are bucking a decades-long drift toward the suburbs and moving into urban areas.

Gates of Prayer, whose membership has stabilized at about 450 families after dropping from 480 to as few as 390 active families after Katrina, responded this summer by adding a second rabbi, tasked with outreach to unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s. The job went to newly ordained Rabbi Alexis Pinsky, an Atlanta native and Tulane graduate who is taking services to the areas where those young adults live.

“There is so much young life,” Rabbi Pinsky said, mixing those drawn to the city after college and those, like her, who fell in love with the city while attending Tulane and found their way back. With upward of 3,500 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students, Tulane alone represents a Jewish community that’s one-third the size of the New Orleans Jewish community.

“People in my age group are very community-service-focused,” Rabbi Pinsky said, and the chance to help rebuild a great city “called a lot of people to make New Orleans their home.”

Weil noted that the Jewish community has gotten to show off a bit the past five years. The General Assembly of Jewish Federations was in New Orleans in 2010, followed by the New Orleans Federation’s centennial in 2013 and TribeFest in 2014. He said the Jewish singles scene would make much larger cities proud.

After decades of stagnation in terms of facilities and programs, Jewish New Orleans has adopted a startup mentality. The barriers to experimentation are gone, Weil said.

In addition to Avodah, which arrived in 2008 and has become embedded in the city under Levine, Moishe House is established in New Orleans, which is the smallest city supporting Limmud. Chavurot and other programs are sprouting up, Weil said.

“Even traditional institutions are transformed. They’re much more on the ball,” he said.

The growth of the community has eased the pressure of eight or nine years ago and allowed some groups to focus more on their own concerns, Weil said, but no one wants to go back to the pre-Katrina Jewish New Orleans.

“The outgrowth of Katrina is quite remarkable,” he said. “This is someplace where Jewish collaboration is working.” He can envision the Jewish community doubling or tripling in size.

“We are going to have an incredible community,” Levine said.

Fischman can see that future as she walks around the Uptown JCC, where day campers fill the pool, the gym and the classrooms during the summer, to be replaced by preschoolers in the fall, and where the fitness center and programming bring New Orleans together all year.

The Uptown JCC is a microcosm of the Jewish community: bustling, full of energy, straining for the use of every square foot, frustrated at the Army Corps of Engineers (a drainage project has torn up the roads around the center), and prepared for any disaster. The hurricane-ready stockpile of bottled water, for example, kept the center operating on a 95-degree day in late July when the city faced a boil-water scare.

So it’s appropriate that the community will gather there Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, to remember what happened 10 years ago and celebrate Jewish New Orleans’ bright future. All 19 Jewish organizations that existed 10 years ago are co-sponsoring the free event, which Fischman said will mimic the December 2005 homecoming.

The event will include a rabbinic prayer, a zydeco performer, and kosher jambalaya and brisket debris po’boys, she said. “We’re going to celebrate everything good about New Orleans — our music, our food, our people.”

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