If it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to raise a community?
Ask the Jewish community of New Orleans, and they’ll probably say that it takes tremendous patience, goodwill and achdut Yisrael, or cooperation. They know. They’ve been at it for nearly a year now, trying to rebuild what Katrina destroyed.
From the start, the Jewish community of New Orleans seemed determined to stay. Even after the mandatory evacuations last August, Chabad representatives in New Orleans held out as the water level rose, concerned that a number of elderly community members had fearfully holed up in their homes endangering their lives. Ultimately, the successes that resulted from the rescue and relief efforts were due largely to cooperation between Chabad and other entities that pooled their resources and their goodwill.
“When we could not make contact with our people in Biloxi,” recalled Howard Feinberg, Senior Managing Director of the UJC, in an interview with Lubavitch.com, “Chabad arranged that.” And a few days later, when bodies were being moved to Baton Rouge, “we again reached out to Chabad because there was no Chevra Kadisha there, and they made an immediate commitment to take care of that.”
Conversely, the UJC has provided assistance to Chabad since the hurricane, most recently with a major grant that puts teeth into Chabad’s determination to rebuild stronger and better in a community that is reduced in size by about one third. According to Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, of Chabad of Yorba Linda, CA, and the Chabad liason to the UJC, the recent grant is “a great expression of the growing partnership between Chabad and the UJC throughout the world.” Feinberg concurs: “The grant is a natural extension of this cooperation, between two organizations that do very disparate tasks. It is an opportunity to come together to do many things to sustain Jewish life.”
Part of a larger emergency funding package provided by the UJC through the local Federation, the grant gives Chabad among the other Jewish agencies of the greater New Orleans area, its budgetary shortfall for the 2006 and 2007 year. According to Barry Swartz, Senior Vice President of the UJC, the UJC raised approximately 28 million dollars for the Gulf area’s Jewish and general rebuilding effort, most of which will cover a two-year plan developed by the local federation to assist and sustain the Jewish communities and organizations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Biloxi.
“The goal is for the New Orleans Jewish community to work together to develop plans so that it will thrive in the years to come,” Swartz said in an interview with Lubavitch.com.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the Lubavitch educational and social services divisions, echoes this hope, and says that “it is absolutely crucial that this partnership between Chabad and the UJC is nurtured and continues to be strengthened.
“Whether it is about Jewish education or crisis intervention, as in the tsunami and Katrina, Chabad is the largest Jewish organization in the world with Shluchim everywhere working with passion and dedication to ensure a future for the Jewish people,” he says. “The UJC, in turn, is the largest fundraiser in the Jewish world, with the ability to facilitate tremendous achievements in partnership with Chabad for the benefit of world Jewry, and for Jewish continuity, and we’d like to see it grow.”
Roselle M. Ungar, the Interim Executive Director of the local New Orleans Federation who invited all of the city’s Jewish agencies and synagogues to submit applications for the UJC funding, told Lubavitch.com that the Federation is now in the process of creating a recovery plan for the greater New Orleans Jewish community. The grant is “truly a blessing for us; we don’t have to worry about making our payroll for the 2006-2007 year,” and, she says, the Jewish agencies are thus freed up to use this critical time for “hard decisions that will have to be made based on reduced community size and expected revenues and income,” she explains.
Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, Chabad representative to New Orleans who says he is “gratified by the support of the UJC,” agrees: “It is s going to be a difficult 2-3 years ahead of us,” he says. But with the UJC contribution, Chabad will move ahead to rebuild bigger and better, with expanded programs and services. This past January, Chabad reopened its Torah Academy day school with only 26 children—about one third its usual student body, and at Tulane University, Chabad programs are in full swing as a new student center is under construction.
The first anniversary of Katrina is just two months away, and while the city is still literally digging out of the debris of its worst natural disaster, residents are preparing for another summer hurricane season with at least four mandatory evacuations anticipated. So if patience was ever thought an overrated virtue, it is practiced with aplomb in this city where municipal services are erratic, mail is slow to arrive, garbage is slow to be collected, and insurance companies keep people waiting for desperately needed payouts while they live in trailer homes, or by the overextended hospitality of friends, or, if they are lucky, on the upper floors of their homes.
But the mood seems to be one of cautious optimism within the Jewish community, where 60% of its residents have returned–15 percent more than the figures given for the overall population. While Rabbi Rivkin is keeping his hopes up for an eventual return of 80% of the community, more guarded estimates expect the numbers to top off somewhere between 70-75 percent. But, says Barry Swartz, “Chabad knows better than anyone—given the emissaries around the world—that no matter what the size of the community, it is important to sustain Jewish life.”