Torah Academy, Jewish School in Greater New Orleans Community, Struggles To Survive Post-Katrina, with $2 Million in Debt Hanging Overhead

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, vibrant communities throughout New Orleans suffered tragically, leaving citizens to pick up the broken pieces. One such community affected by the category 5 hurricane was the Jewish community of Greater New Orleans.

Torah Academy Promotion Table and Information Session
Torah Academy Promotion Table and Information Session

Torah Academy Promotion Table and Information Session

A little-known New Orleans Jewish day school, Torah Academy, has been key to keeping the community alive. Founded in 1993, Torah Academy is part of a long line of schools founded in New Orleans, serving a Jewish population that is one of the oldest in the United States – the first Jewish immigrant came to New Orleans circa 1724, and was a Dutch Sephardic Jew, named Isaac Monsanto, who sought to pursue a new life in America.

Torah Academy is the ONLY Orthodox school providing Jewish education in a 600 mile radius.

Post-Katrina Class at Torah Academy
Post-Katrina Class at Torah Academy

Post-Katrina Class at Torah Academy

Before Katrina decimated New Orleans, enrollment at Torah Academy was thriving with approximately 60 children. The aftermath of the hurricane damaged more than just the school building. About half of the families with children in the school left New Orleans permanently. When Torah Academy re-opened its doors starting in January of 2006, their school was simply not the same. With only 30 children returning post-Katrina and a badly damaged facility, the Orthodox community of New Orleans had taken a huge hit, but refused to give up.

torah academy pic 4

“My parents, Rabbi Zelig and Bluma Rivkin, were sent to New Orleans as an emissary, or Shliach, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the 1970s. This is a lifetime appointment. After evacuating and being away for a few weeks, our family, and the other Chabad Shlichim in the community, joined the New Orleans Jewish community in shouldering the responsibility to come back and rebuild Jewish life in New Orleans,” said Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, President of the Torah Academy board.

torah academy pic 3

The rebuilding process was slow. In March 2008, Torah Academy moved to a small temporary facility while repairs to the original facility were attempted. After multiple false starts, it was determined that they would have to scrap repairs on the pre-Katrina facility and start from scratch. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) determined that Torah Academy was eligible for a full replacement grant, and after several years of tireless work, a new facility was completed in August of 2014.

EIGHT YEARS LATER.

The devastation and ruins caused by Katrina’s wrath could not be simply fixed by FEMA’s assistance. The federal grant covered most of the cost of building the new facility, but the school would have to procure the land, without FEMA’s help. Gaining ownership of the land where the new Torah Academy was built and other construction costs not included in the FEMA grant left Torah Academy footing a bill of approximately $1.5 million dollars. In the three years since the school has opened, they have operated at a deficit as they struggle to bring Torah Academy back to pre-Katrina levels, and the current debt stands at $2.1 million.

Trying to rebuild and regrow has taken years and the school is still struggling to deal with the debt incurred. While enrollment has increased to 59 children today, the poignant fact remains that Torah Academy still has a ways to go. Convincing young Jewish families to relocate to New Orleans also remains a major challenge. The New Orleans area has many challenges, including a weak education system, high crime rates, and a dearth of middle class jobs. For many Orthodox Jewish families, New Orleans has simply been left “off the list.”.

Without Torah Academy, the chances of the Orthodox community of the Greater New Orleans area surviving are slim. Now, with a new building and with numbers back to pre-Katrina levels, there is hope, but Torah Academy needs help.

The Torah Academy board is determined to keep looking towards a brighter future. Rivkin remains optimistic that the Orthodox community in New Orleans will continue to grow. “The city is working very hard post-Katrina to make itself over and be more attractive to upper middle class families which will hopefully attract Jewish families as well.”

Rabbi Rivkin and Torah Academy are hopeful that the American Jewish community will reach out in this difficult time of need. Starting this January, the board began launching a campaign to raise the $2 million needed to sustain Torah Academy..

Back in Business at Torah Academy. Students, Families, Donations, Etc. Are Needed for the New Institution to Survive
Back in Business at Torah Academy. Students, Families, Donations, Etc. Are Needed for the New Institution to Survive

Back in Business at Torah Academy. Students, Families, Donations, Etc. Are Needed for the New Institution to Survive and Grow

“We face significant debt,” said Rabbi Rivkin, “but our mission is to be an inclusive school, providing education to every child that would like to have, regardless of ability to pay.” The campaign goals are to raise $750,000 per year for the next three years to establish the school on a firm footing, and help New Orleans grow to become more like other booming Jewish centers in the South, like Atlanta and Houston.

Reflecting on the rebuilding process, Rabbi Rivkin said: “When Katrina hit New Orleans, many of us doubted that the city would survive. There was even more question as to whether the Jewish community would survive. Hundreds of people have worked so hard to make sure that one of the oldest Jewish communities in the United States should stay alive. With Torah Academy, we can not only survive, but we can thrive!”

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About the Author
Working in NYC politics and from South America, with a passion for those doing great things for the world through philanthropy and featuring their stories.
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