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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Matzo, meet gumbo

Want to help rebuild a Jewish community in a stricken city? Then New Orleans needs you. And there's money being offered. Couldn't hurt.

July 19, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — 'DO you have a pioneering spirit?" read the recent ad in the Jewish Week newspaper of New York. "Are you searching for a meaningful community where YOU can make a difference?"

To generations of American Jews, the pitch had a familiar ring. But this was not an invitation to settle the Promised Land. It was a call to repopulate New Orleans, a city known less for its Jewish culture than for its shellfish, sin and pre-Lenten carnival.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Jews in New Orleans: A photo caption in Thursday's Section A, accompanying an article about recruiting Jews to move to New Orleans, misidentified a Torah cover at Beth Israel synagogue as a prayer shawl.

New Orleans' Jewish population, in fact, has long been a subtle but important ingredient in this curious dish of a city. But its numbers, though always small, have declined precipitously since Hurricane Katrina. Of the 10,000 Jews in the area before the storm, 7,000 remain.

With fewer dues-paying members, some synagogues and Jewish service agencies have been kept afloat by donations from Jews around the country. But the bulk of that largess, provided by the nonprofit United Jewish Communities, dries up at the end of the year.

The Jewish community is by no means New Orleans' most afflicted demographic. But Jewish leaders do not want to see a single Jewish institution closed. They don't wish to consolidate any of the seven synagogues and two Chabad centers that offer a full range of religious observance.

The issue is plain.

"We need people," said Jackie Gothard, president of Congregation Beth Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue that has seen more than 40% of its members move away.

So Jewish New Orleans has cooked up a novel solution: a recruitment drive. With an ad campaign crafted by an Israeli public relations firm, the city's Jewish leaders are hoping to attract at least 1,000 Jews to the city over the next five years. They will appeal to potential pilgrims' better natures, stressing the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, Hebrew for "healing the world" -- or, in this case, healing a broken city.

They also plan to lure them with cash. Starting next month, any Jew who has relocated to the city since Jan. 1 will be eligible for up to $5,500 for moving and housing expenses, interest-free loans of up to $30,000, half-price tuition at Jewish day schools, and a year of free membership at a synagogue and a Jewish community center.

The concept was hatched, in part, by Michael J. Weil, an economist who moved here from Israel in October to head the Jewish Federation, the umbrella group for the city's Jewish agencies and programs. As a consultant to the Israeli government, Weil helped settle thousands of Jewish refugees in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The New Orleans benefits were based, in part, on the sal klita, the "absorption benefits basket" offered to Israeli newcomers.

The recruitment drive springs from an acknowledgment that city officials have done a poor job touting New Orleans' progress in the two years since Katrina. The Jewish community will have to get that message out to its people on its own, Weil said.

"I would hope that nobody's going to move here just because of the incentive package, but it will be a lubricant," Weil said. "We cannot sit around waiting for the Road Home program and all these other things to take place, because we want to be in that great, better place tomorrow." Road Home is a state program that distributes federal funds for Katrina recovery efforts.

The only recruitment ad that has run thus far, the one in New York's Jewish Week, was paid for by Uri Topolosky, a rabbi recently chosen to lead Congregation Beth Israel. It touts the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans' subsidies and the chance to join in an "inspirational rebuilding effort." The federation will begin running its own ads this year in the nation's Jewish newspapers.

So far, Jewish leaders acknowledge that they have attracted only a few newcomers, such as Hal Karp, a former magazine writer from Dallas who is moving here to teach in the public schools.

Karp, 43, said he was "ready to fix the ... world down there." After some financial problems, however, he almost bailed out on his move -- until he received an e-mail from the Jewish Federation. In addition to the money, they offered to pair him with a Jewish "host family" who would help him get to know the city.

"It was really like someone sending you a life raft," he said. "It was like they were saying, 'We need Jews, and if you will come, we'll welcome you.' "

Weil outlined the recruitment plan recently at the Jewish Federation offices near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. The offices are on the third floor of a Jewish Community Center that was flooded with 1 1/2 feet of water. Now renovated, it will house a Jewish day school with an enrollment of 26 students in the fall. It had 69 students before the storm.

Weil acknowledged that New Orleans, with its corruption, crime and uncertainty, may be a tough sell to, say, the middle-aged ophthalmologist ensconced on Long Island or La Brea Avenue. But he thinks he might be able to lure the ophthalmologist's children.

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