A first-hand look at New Orleans Jewish life post-Katrina

BY CLAIRE JACOBS

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans had a Jewish population of about 10,000, about one percent of the general population. After Katrina, it was 7,500.

The drop in numbers is proportional to the general population before and after Katrina. New Orleans has had a vibrant Jewish community — there are three reform synagogues in New Orleans — Sinai, Touro and Gates of Prayer — one Conservative, and two Orthodox synagogues and two Chabad Centers. Touro Congregation is the oldest reform synagogue in the United States other than in the original 13 states. There are two kosher restaurants (one that serves kosher jambalaya etoufe, a local stew), two Jewish day schools, a Jewish Family Service, a Hillel, a Louisiana Kashrut Commission and a Jewish Federation.

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When, on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, a warning was given, because of an approaching hurricane, to evacuate New Orleans, many folks left and took clothing and other necessities for three days, expecting to return to the city quickly. It was not to be. The hurricane came on Monday, Aug. 29. Then the 17th Street Canal Levee broke. By Aug. 31, 80 percent of New Orleans was under flood water, largely due to the levee failure from Lake Ponchartrain.

The 9th Ward in New Orleans (where few or no Jews lived), where most of the deaths occurred, was completely devastated by the hurricane. Most of the homes will have to be rebuilt. The Lakeview District, (where about 15 percent of the Jews live), right next to Lake Ponchartrain, was also hard hit because it was near the 17th Street Canal Levee break.

One couple left the city, on the Saturday before the hurricane, to live with their daughter for four months in another city. Although their home in New Orleans sustained only four inches of water, everything was mildewed. They sold the house as it was and are now renting in another area of New Orleans. Another family’s house had 10 feet of water and was completely destroyed. They bought another house from a family who were not returning to New Orleans to live.

The stench from garbage in the city was horrendous. Nearly every member of the Jewish Community had sustained some damage. A large percentage of Jewish families who did not return to New Orleans were older and large contributors to the Jewish community.

In New Orleans, you hear the term, “Sliver on the River.” This was an area between Feret Street and the Mississippi River that the flood avoided because it was a high area where the streetcars ran.

One of the success stories of rescue was that of Touro Infirmary, a private non-profit based hospital which rescued itself during the flooding. It is a hospital that cares for the sick and the indigent. It is the story of how Touro Infimary used its hurricane disaster plan to survive Katrina and rescue its patients. No patient was left behind. Touro is in the “Sliver on the River” and did not flood but the streets around Touro did flood. Today, Touro Infirmary emergency room is taking the brunt of the New Orleans indigent.

There is some positive outgrowth of the storm. Now there is the spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took in 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation. Funds from the United Jewish Community, the umbrella organization of North American Federations, has sent over $20 million to New Orleans. Each adult Jew in New Orleans, by signing his or her name, was given $700 to get money into circulation.

Now, the New Orleans Jewish Federation has a plan, administered by the Jewish Family Service, to get 1,000 new Jewish individuals and families to settle in New Orleans. The incentive package includes housing and business loans, moving grants, scholarships to the community day schools, free or reduced membership at synagogues and local Jewish organizations, and a job-searching network. Federations’ current annual campaign is on track to raise more than $2.6 million, compared to the $2.8 million raised among significantly more members in the pre-Katrina campaign. Another plan by Michael Weil, a strategic planner brought from Israel to head the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, is to retain at least 50 of the area’s 400 to 500 Jewish college students who graduate each year.

Drive around New Orleans and observe the blue roofs all over the damaged area, a sure sign that a hurricane has passed through. After more than two years, many blue roofs are still showing.

Claire Jacobs, a Clayton resident, is from Selma, Alabama and attended Tulane University in New Orleans. Jacobs visited New Orleans with her husband earlier this year.