c. 2007 Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ 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 or 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.
Rabbis, educators and other leaders are also 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.
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 in the bank from philanthropies throughout the country, federation Director Michael Weil said.
Weil, an economist and strategic planner who became the federation’s director last 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 free or discounted costs to join local synagogues, local Jewish community centers and 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.
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 a New Orleans law firm that 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.”
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. Many community leaders said if institutions are somewhat smaller, they seem more intensely Jewish than in pre-Katrina days.
“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.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
KRE/RB END NOLAN
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