By Gail Naron Chalew, JTA
Editor’s note: This was written prior to Hurricane Gustav.
NEW ORLEANS — Three years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the face of Jewish New Orleans is undergoing a dramatic transformation.
The traditional Southern community that was nearly destroyed by the hurricane on Aug. 29, 2005 has been energized by an influx of young newcomers and has a new pioneering spirit, community leaders say.
We are moving from a community in recovery to a community of transformation, said Michael Weil, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
Our agencies and synagogues are now mostly back on track.
Weil says, however, that the community isnt merely interested in returning to where it was before the storm.
Katrina has given us the opportunity to reinvent an entire American Jewish community, he said.
While the first two anniversaries of the hurricane were marked by exhaustion, reconstruction and the consuming effort of getting lives back to normal, this years Katrina anniversary was met with cautious optimism.
Jewish community leaders say the recovery effort has turned a corner and they are looking forward to a richer and more vibrant community.
Newcomers, estimated at 10% of the Jewish population here, already are having a significant impact on the community. In one example, enrollment at the federation-sponsored community day school, which fell by nearly 75% after Katrina, has nearly doubled from last year.
Some 600 Jewish newcomers have moved to New Orleans since Katrina, some drawn by the federations newcomer incentives program.
The program offers eligible newcomers up to $5,500 for moving and rental housing expenses, interest-free loans of up to $30,000 for housing and business start-ups, half-price tuition at the community Jewish day school and a years free membership at a synagogue of their choice, the JCC, local Jewish organizations and even JDate.
An extension of the newcomer program called JGRAD launched last month with the aim of keeping Jewish graduates of Tulane and other local universities in New Orleans.
This matches them with a job counselor and provides rental grants, help in repaying student loans and a signing bonus of $500 when they land their first job.
Until recently, most of the newcomers have been single and married young professionals without children.
But now families with young children are coming, too, says the newcomer programs director, Jennifer Samuels.
This is a really strong vote of confidence in the future of New Orleans and the vitality of our Jewish community, Samuels said.
One family Mardi Steinitz, Patrick OConnor and their son, Rowan moved here from Philadelphia when Rowan was three months old. Patrick works as a producer for a local television news show; Mardi is a stay-at-home mom.
Before we moved here, all I knew about New Orleans was the negative things I had heard on TV, Mardi told JTA.
But I have fallen in love with it, much more than any other place I have lived before. This is really like a small town where everyone is so friendly and warm. It is so easy to make new friends, and I can walk everywhere.
Rabbi Uri Topolosky, whose flooded synagogue, Beth Israel, became famous three years ago when photos of its Torahs being rescued in chest-deep water circulated worldwide, said New Orleans modern Orthodox community is growing.
In a small Jewish community like New Orleans, every new observant family really makes a significant impact. Because kosher food and day school are priorities for these families, they help strengthen the institutions that the entire Jewish community can benefit from.
Beth Israel has launched an effort called the Minyan Project to attract 10 new Orthodox families to the community.
In return for generous financial assistance, the families will commit to providing community service.