New Orleans: “Jewish Pioneering Country”

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

New Orleans is being rebuilt – with some notable and controversial gaps – and the devastated city’s Jewish population is on the road to recovery, as well.

On Friday one of that community’s leaders was in Washington, making the case that New Orleans Jews have come a long way – but still need outside help to finish the job.

Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said his community is in the “third phase of recovery: the long term building of a community. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are not going to get back to where we were before – that’s not going to happen- – but perhaps we’ll get to a better place.”

Weil was in Washington to coordinate with disaster recovery agencies like FEMA and the Jewish groups that have provided targeted help to New Orleans’ Jewish community, starting with the United Jewish Communities (UJC).

UJC, Weil said, played a critical role in a “financial stabilization plan that allowed our 19 synagogues and other institutions to continue functioning.”

But New Orleans continues to need help from the outside because “What we want to do is beyond the ability of any individual community to do on its own,” he said.

In his Washington meetings, Weil said he also focused on the issue of preparedness in case the devastated city faces another disaster like Katrina, and on sharing his community’s hard-won expertise with other communities.

He was also on Capitol Hill, hoping to advance earmarked appropriations to help with the rebuilding process.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was home to about 9500 Jews; that dropped to 6000 at the start of 2005 but is up to about 7500 – in part because of a “newcomers incentive plan” that has lured “about 650 Jews, mostly young, many from the Northeast,” he said. “And many are moved by the idea of Tikkun Olam; they feel, as we do, that today New Orleans is Jewish pioneering country.”

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.