New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 25, 2007


The local Jewish federation is launching a recruiting effort to aid New Orleans' recovery
Sunday, March 25, 2007
By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer

Its numbers sharply reduced by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' Jewish community is about to launch a novel rebuilding campaign to recruit as many as 1,000 Jewish families to New Orleans with offers of moving grants, loans and other economic incentives.

The unusual initiative -- maybe unique in the recovering city -- is part of an aggressive, multipronged effort by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans to repair and perhaps even expand the Jewish community beyond its pre-Katrina numbers.

The community plans to market New Orleans to Jewish families nationally as a city filled with opportunities for pioneers interested in rebuilding a battered Jewish community, as well as the broader city.

To complement its marketing effort, the federation already has offered loans and other help to about a dozen families returning to their homes in New Orleans. And through personal contacts and private welcoming parties, it is consciously trying to connect newcomers to Jewish institutions and families, maximizing the chance they will remain in New Orleans.

Even as that happens, rabbis, educators and other leaders are exploring ways in which Jewish agencies and synagogues weakened by Katrina can work together more effectively, whether through mergers or closer collaboration.

The metro area was home to a Jewish community of about 10,000 before Katrina. Leaders believe up to 30 percent have left, most permanently.

All of the area's 19 major Jewish agencies and congregations survived the storm. But for the year and a half since Katrina, they have been propped up with massive subsidies from national organizations.

Their challenge, local leaders say, is to survive -- even flourish -- when subsidies end this year and the reduced local donor base must shoulder the full burden.

But rather than wait, the federation, which coordinates the work of independent local Jewish organizations, months ago formed five committees to develop a strategic plan to revitalize the community. Many of those ideas will be on the table for more discussion at a public meeting at noon today at the Jewish Community Center in Metairie.

Financial incentive

The federation's leadership already has approved in principle one of the most aggressive ideas: the New Orleans marketing campaign and its accompanying financial package, stocked with $300,000 already in hand from philanthropies throughout the country, federation Director Michael Weil said. Fundraising for that effort continues, he said.

Weil, an economist and strategic planner who became the federation's director in October, said its details have not been finalized, but the program certainly will offer Jewish families who agree to move to New Orleans for three to five years a low-interest or interest-free home or business loan of up to $15,000.

Other elements include a $2,500 moving grant, as well as forgiving or discounting costs associated with joining local synagogues, the area's two Jewish community centers and one or both of its Jewish day schools, where annual tuition before Katrina was about $8,000, said Sherri Tarr, the campaign's coordinator.

The federation expects to promote its campaign through Jewish agencies, Web sites and newspapers. "We'll use every tool in our little arsenal" to advertise the incentives and brand New Orleans as an attractive, rebuilding community, Weil said.

In one sense, the campaign is already under way.

On a mission

A number of New Orleanians active in national Jewish organizations already are using their personal networks to issue a broad invitation to young families and singles to come see New Orleans on Mother's Day weekend.

"We're going to expose them, educate them, and maybe inspire them," said Serena Pollack, who has helped organize the "mission weekend."

A newcomer to New Orleans herself, Pollack visited New Orleans with a house-gutting team last spring and said she was energized at the possibility of moving here to help rebuild both the city and its Jewish community.

Single and 32, she left Chicago and joined the New Orleans law firm of Lowe, Stein, Hoffman, Allweiss & Hauver, which she said is giving her ample time to pursue the recruiting as one of several ways it hopes to support the community's recovery.

Pollack said she relishes the opportunity to become involved in the city's civic life, and hopes to make that pitch to about two dozen visitors between the ages of 22 and 45 who are expected to make the May trip.

"Face it, we've had it pretty easy all our lives," she said. "We've grown up in places where we've never had to struggle. But now my generation has the opportunity to build something up -- to do what our grandparents did in their time."

A different community

The revitalization campaign is unfolding against a backdrop of a community transformed in several ways by Katrina.

Research by Louisiana State University sociologist Rick Weil suggests that the metro New Orleans lost about 20 percent of its Jewish community, although Michael Weil and other leaders believe a casualty figure of 30 percent is more accurate.

Yet among those who remain, Rick Weil of LSU said he found deep roots connecting them to the city and its Jewish community, a strong sense of optimism and markedly more confidence in Jewish leadership than in civic leadership, whether local, state or federal.

Moreover, Weil said his research showed no evidence of a feared "brain drain" from New Orleans among Jewish professionals and business executives. Except academics at struggling universities, the best educated members of the Jewish community are returning at the same rate as others in the community, he said.

Yet everybody still needs help. In the year and a half since the storm, national Jewish groups poured $28 million into the Gulf Coast, Michael Weil said.

Almost half went to non-Jewish relief; some went to Jewish communities outside New Orleans; and about $13 million was divided among local synagogues and agencies to prop them up through the end of this year, said Allan Bissinger, the federation's president.

More cooperation

Beyond recruiting, the greater part of the rebuilding plan focuses on how synagogues, schools and other agencies can survive in a smaller community.

For example, two small Orthodox congregations, Anshe Sfard and Beth Israel, have begun some joint programming. And the boards of two small Jewish elementary schools, one relatively liberal and the other ultra-Orthodox, are in talks about their futures, said Weil, who personally seemed in favor of a merger.

"The question could be asked: Could we afford two schools before the storm?" Weil said. "We definitely cannot afford two schools after the storm. So we have to think about possibly combining the two together. The two cannot survive on their own. Hopefully, they can survive together."

In the meantime, many community leaders said, if institutions are somewhat smaller, they seem more intensely Jewish than in pre-Katrina days.

"We're smaller, definitely stronger, more compact, more intense; there are higher levels of engagement," Weil said.

In addition, Bissinger and others said there's more cooperation among groups who previously went their separate ways because of widely different cultural and religious visions of Judaism -- from secular, unaffiliated Jews at one end of the spectrum to the area's extremely Orthodox Chabad communities at the other.

"We were small to begin with. And you realize when nature does this little trick to you how vulnerable you are," said Jackie Gothard, president of the Congregation Beth Israel. "So you'd better stick together, to recover together."

For instance, Gothard's Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation whose Lakeview synagogue was destroyed, worships weekly in space loaned by Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform congregation in Metairie far removed from Beth Israel on the religious spectrum.

In addition, every committee on the rebuilding campaign is salted with widely diverse groups working together, a collaboration that would have been hard to achieve without the stress of Katrina, said Bissinger.

"There's certainly a greater sense of cooperation, especially in the face of so much disillusionment with city government," said Rabbi Ed Cohn of Temple Sinai.

"The old paradigm is gone. Now it's just Jews helping each other when there's trouble, just as Jews have done for centuries."

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Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344

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