New Orleans Out to Revive Jewish Community
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
More than one-fourth of New Orleans' Jewish community did not come back after Hurricane Katrina, and that has been hard on the small number of Jewish families who've called New Orleans home for a long time. So local leaders have embarked on a campaign to lure Jews from around the country to settle in the Crescent City.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: On a recent sunny Sunday, more than a hundred Jews from New Orleans have come to the nearby Algiers neighborhood to build a new playground for a Katrina-damaged elementary school.
Ms. SARAH CITRON(ph): Do you want to come here and make sure we put this on right this time?
KAHN: Twenty-three-year-old Sarah Citron struggles with one end of a huge blue plastic tube that will form part of a jungle gym slide. Citron just moved from New York City.
Ms. CITRON: A lot of people told me that I was crazy to move from New York to New Orleans, that there's a really small Jewish community and I don't know anyone my age.
KAHN: But in just a few short weeks, Citron has found a community of young Jewish transplants and opportunities like this playground project to make a difference.
Ms. CITRON: It feels nice to be part of something like this. It feels nice to be able to say I'm helping to rebuild, or I'm, you know, even just the littlest things.
KAHN: Citron got some money for moving expenses from the Jewish Federation of New Orleans Newcomers Incentive Program. Jews settling in the area get rent and job assistance, even low interest loans to buy a house or start a business.
Michael Weil of the Jewish Federation says the aid isn't much, but may entice to the city and will certainly help a lot of the young Jews he's seen migrate here recently.
Mr. MICHAEL WEIL (Jewish Federation of New Orleans): A lot of them for idealistic reasons. They know that being here, this is part of rebuilding, it's expressing the idea of tikkun olam, of mending the world, that you can be involved in shaping the future of a great city to be even a greater city.
KAHN: Weil hopes young idealism can give a boost to the community, which dropped from a high of 12,000 people before Katrina to about 9,000 today.
Catherine Kahn, a local Jewish historian, says even before the storm, the numbers were on the decline as the city suffered economic hardships. But she says Jews have always made their mark on New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase more than 200 years ago.
Ms. CATHERIN KAHN (Touro Infirmary): The Jewish community has been tremendously active, tremendously outspoken, tremendously important, much more than their tiny numbers.
KAHN: Kahn says those tiny numbers led to an assimilated Jewish community, especially in the city where shellfish is king and Mardi Gras rules. Fifty-five-year-old Allan Bissinger, who's lived in New Orleans all his life, remembers when Mardi Gras krewes, or clubs, excluded Jews.
Mr. ALLAN BISSINGER (Jewish Federation of New Orleans): That's become more open, but I didn't have the sense of anti-Semitism. It may be exclusion but not anti-Semitism, if you can differentiate between those two.
KAHN: Inclusion is more the norm these days, and like other Southern Jews, many have found ways to adapt to local lore.
(Soundbite of music)
KAHN: New Orleans has its own Klezmer jazz band. There's a Jewish Mardi Gras club called Krewe de Jieux - that's J-I-E-U-X - which dances to a unique mix of Hava Nagila (unintelligible), and at the Kosher Cajun Deli owner Natalie Brown serves a kosher po'boy.
Ms. NATALIE BROWN (Owner, Kosher Cajun Deli): It's made out of fish but it's shaped to look like shrimp, and I've never had real shrimp. But I've heard from people that have that it, you know, it compares.
KAHN: A kosher restaurant was a plus for Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who was living in New York when he spotted an ad for the newcomers program. New Orleans' Beth Israel Temple hired him and bought his family a new home. He says he hopes other Jews taka advantage of the financial incentives to come to New Orleans, but he says there is much more here than free rent and temple membership.
Rabbi URI TOPOLOSKY (Beth Israel Temple, New Orleans): This was an opportunity to come to some place, to rebuild, to feel good every day that you're a part of a mission, you're part of a project. It's just every day is exciting.
KAHN: Since the summer, when the newcomers incentive program began, more than 90 families have made the move and now call New Orleans home.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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