New Orleans â€” ‘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.
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” â€” 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.
I first read about the plan last week but what really caught my eye was this:
In the late 1990s, during one particularly uninspiring football season, local poet Andrei Codrescu remembers watching with astonishment as a rabbi marched through Jackson Square with a handful of congregants. He was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the shofar.
Now there is something that you don’t see every day.