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Attracting Jewish Families to the Area Tops List of Priorities for Community

New Orleanians opened their Times-Picayune on Sunday morning to the front page article “Sounding the Call,” by Bruce Nolan about the Jewish community’s strategic planning process.  That same afternoon over 130 members of the local Jewish community gathered at the Goldring-Woldenberg Jewish Community Campus to hear status reports concerning the planning process, to vote on priorities, and to share their ideas of how best to deal with post-Katrina challenges. 

 

“The Jewish community of New Orleans is a locomotive that is pulling much more than its weight,” declared Rick Weil in delivering his report on the 2006 LSU Survey of the Jewish community in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Survey results reflected the community’s cautious optimism about the short-term future and surprisingly strong hope and optimism about the long-term future of the city.   It also displayed positive attitudes on the job performance of Jewish leaders and belied the so-called “brain drain” theory, which had professionals abandoning New Orleans.  Rather, the survey showed that many had been offered opportunities elsewhere, but chose to stay. 

 

Federation Executive Director Michael Weil, lay leader Julie Wise Oreck, and Task Force chairs, who have been driving the strategic planning process since last summer, reported on their progress to date, highlighting  themes such as attracting newcomers, embracing those who have left the city, fundraising outside the Jewish community, retaining high levels of engagement within the community, revitalizing and expanding the Jewish day school by making it more accessible, achieving high levels of collaboration among community members and institutions, branding New Orleans as a destination, and including our city as a “Jewish People Project.” 

 

Following these reports, a general discussion elicited concerns such as the dire state of the New Orleans economy and the necessity of building the job base and improving education. Mitigating factors noted by author, Times Picayune reporter and community member Mark Schleifstein, included the imminent influx of $5.7 billion for levee improvements and the awarding of the new space capsule to the Michoud facility, both of which will bring high and low paying jobs and large amounts of money into the city.  Another theme of this session was the need to increase positive media coverage about New Orleans from national sources and improve communications within and without the community about community activities.   

 

Given the opportunity to vote on a list of priorities for the Jewish community, the group identified “welcoming and attracting new families to New Orleans” and “outreach to the unaffiliated and intermarried”  as its top concerns, with “Jewish day school education” as third, “engaging Jewish students at local colleges” fourth, and “youth activities’ and “young adult activities” close behind. Thus, all participants are looking to assure the long term survival and health of our local Jewish community by nurturing the younger generations. 

 

Steven Bingler, chief planning coordinator with Concordia Architects, gave a presentation on the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), which he described as “a marvel of democratic and participatory planning.”  He urged his audience to see the enormous amount of individual input in a positive light, assuring the group that some order has emerged from the chaos.  Noting that until now, very little if any, planning had been done for most city services, the city of New Orleans has much to gain from this planning effort.  The UNOP, which is data driven, utilizes best practices, and is open to the public—represents a huge step in the right direction.  It will incorporate ideas for smart growth, green spaces, light rail transit, energy efficient buildings, clustered communities, and sustainable planning.   Bingler expects a recommendation to be issued by the City Council on the final draft by May, 2007, but cautions that it will, and may always be, a work in progress. 

 

Sunday’s participants produced a wide range of creative ideas and suggestions—from the general to the specific—which the task forces will continue to refine and implement.  Discussions included what to communicate to the national community about New Orleans, how to engage those who left New Orleans, how to engage the unaffiliated, regional collaboration, and relating to the broader New Orleans community.  Suggestions such as job fairs, participation in more “mitzvah” days where the Jewish community interacts with the larger community, a Jewish Renaissance Festival, a J-Date event for singles, welcome packages for newcomers, and setting up parlor meetings in other towns with former New Orleans residents, were just a few of the many specific proposals produced by group break-out sessions.  (Look for a complete listing of these proposals and minutes of Sunday’s meeting, soon to be posted at www.jewishnola.com.) 

 

The meeting was attended by Howard Feinberg of United Jewish Communities, who has continually worked for the rebuilding of the New Orleans Jewish community, and Daniel Lepow of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who has offered to help disseminate our story to other cities around the nation and the world. Federation President Allan Bissinger, Campaign Co-Chair and incoming Federation President Michael Wasserman, assisted with introductions; Nancy Fournier facilitated the discussion sections of the program; and lay leader Alan Franco closed by adding an idea of his own—building up our community’s Jewish endowment. 

 

In all, the afternoon was another feather in the cap of our Jewish community, with all denominations and traditions well represented.  It resulted in a wealth of suggestions which the Federation and Task Forces will incorporate into a strategic plan.  Several of the proposals are already being implemented, others will be implemented in the next few years, with the goal of growing and revitalizing our Jewish community.  Thanks to all who participated in the process.