NEW ORLEANS – “There are Jews in New Orleans?” I was often asked when I told people I was going to the Big Easy for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. The question came not only from Israelis but from friends and family in the US, who are a little bit more familiar with the wealth of Jewish communities spread throughout the country. “There are Jews everywhere,” I would reply.
It might come as a surprise to some but the Jewish community in New Orleans predates most other parts of North America. Take a walk down Canal Street, a lively thoroughfare which has one of the city’s iconic streetcar lines running through its center, and you’ll come across many signs bearing names like Rubenstein’s department store and Meyer’s hats. These businesses belonged to German Jews who began arriving in the US in the middle part of the 19th century and prospered along the banks of the Mississippi delta. They joined an already well-established community of Sephardi Jews, who came from even older communities in the Caribbean. Together, they created a Jewish municipal support system: synagogues, an orphanage, a hospital. New Orleans has had a Jewish presence ever since, albeit a relatively small one.
But that continuity was put in peril when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, flooding about 80 percent of its neighborhoods.
The destruction spared nothing and no one, Jew or gentile, church or synagogue.
“We used to have 91 students,” said Bob Berk, head of the school at New Orleans Jewish Community Center, which teaches children from kindergarten up to eighth grade. “We now have 53.”
Indeed, many Jewish locals never returned after the disaster. But others came because of it.
“They’ve come either as social activists on behalf of Jewish charities to assist in the recovery, or because they recognized the opportunity to grow in a place looking to rebuild itself,” Carol Shalita Smokler, governance chair of Repair the World, an organization involved in revitalizing New Orleans, explained.
Nowadays, there are about 8,000 Jews in New Orleans, still not as many as before the hurricane. But there is reason for some optimism: Whereas there used to be four Jewish congregations before Katrina, there are currently six.
SO WHAT WAS the GA all about this year? First, there were a large number of interesting issues being debated.
Minorities Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman and Bronfman Philanthropies head Jeffrey Solomon spoke about why they believed the well-being of Israeli Arabs is a Jewish issue.
US Vice President Joe Biden tried to make up for the controversy which arose during his last visit to Israel – in which he was confronted by, and rebuked, plans for new Jewish construction in eastern Jerusalem – by delivering an unequivocally supportive speech.
Young participants were given a voice this year. Web entrepreneurs like Yonatan Ben-Dor, who has launched a site dedicated to childhood giving, and Margot Stern, whose runs an online forum, sort of a Jewish version of TED, spoke at events. And the young leadership cochairs Steven Scheck and Alice Varislov introduced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the plenary.
The prime minister is an expert in how to communicate with an American audience and pushed all the right buttons in his address.
One thing he didn’t speak about? The conversion bill, at least not legislation pass, though. Either way, he managed to get away with it and conversion did not become a major issue.
But any account of the conference without reference to the heckling by activists of Jewish Voices for Peace, a leftist group involved in attempts to break the blockade on Gaza and relocate the planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, would be incomplete. The incident in which they interrupted Netanyahu was very troubling to those who witnessed it. One by one, protesters stood up on chairs with pre-made signs. “The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel,” one shouted. “The occupation delegitimizes Israel,” yelled another.
There were five in all. A security guard said two of them – a young female and an elderly man – were taken away quietly. (JVP said, however, that all protesters were “young”.) Every time another protester appeared the crowd became less patient with the party crashers. Chants of “am Yisrael chai” and “Bibi, Bibi” started up spontaneously. In perhaps the ugliest incident, a protester resisted being carried out, jumping over rows of chairs trying to evade security. He was wrestled down by a combination of guards and vigilante members of the audience and carried out kicking and screaming.
“I saw him later, he was pretty roughed up,” Ehud Hechtman, a security guard who witnessed the event, said.
JTA’s Jacob Berkman reported that he saw one audience member put a female protester in a nelson.
Amid the drama, only Netanyahu seemed unfazed.
“If they’re talking about delegitimization, they’ve got the wrong address,“ he said and received a tremendous round of applause from the delegates.
After the incident I decided to gauge whether the protest reflected a larger sentiment in the audience, especially among youth. I found a group of Orthodox college students who agreed to weigh in their opinion. There was no anger in their voices, but rather disappointment.
“If we allow five butt-heads to hijack the message here by standing on chairs with their homemade signs we’re failing our roles as ambassadors to Israel,” Daniel Friedman, a student at the University of California at San Diego, said.
Later that day I spoke to left-leaning seculars, who said they felt ambivalence about the incident.
They oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the loyalty oath, and wished JFNA addressed such issues. Most of them, however, said that while they may agree with the issues raised, the form of the protest was misguided.
NOT TO end on a somber note, there were many uplifting moments at this year’s GA as well.
David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the critically acclaimed television show, gave a candid and heartfelt speech. Choking back the tears, he spoke about growing up in a house with a father who was a deeply committed Jewish professional who worked for B’nai B’rith.
He commended JFNA for raising $28 million for New Orleans, but urged the Jewish community to do more. Sadly, few people stuck around after Biden’s speech to hear him. Luckily, he agreed to an interview with The Jerusalem Post, which will appear in full next week.
And then there was astronaut Garrett Reisman, who came to the conference as a guest of Limmud FSU, an organization promoting Jewish education among Russian-speakers, and who nearly stole the show. The diminutive Reisman was given a shout out by Netanyahu from the stage during his speech, asking him if he would agree to make aliya.
Reisman didn’t miss a beat. He got on stage and gave the prime minister his answer. “For a decision like that even an astronaut has to ask his wife,” he said.