Will New Orleans Jewish life ever be the same

baltimore | Even before Hurricane Katrina, the Jewish population was declining, primarily because of the poor New Orleans economy that provided few high-tech or corporate opportunities. In recent years, many young people have moved to Atlanta or Houston in search of good jobs.

Now the exodus will be accelerated.

Certainly, the community will never be the same. Just as certainly, members of the Jewish community are now in galut (exile), scattered in a hurricane-induced diaspora that stretches across the country.

New Orleans is a Catholic community through and through. Its elites are not WASPs but Catholics. Mardi Gras has its roots in Catholicism, parochial schools educate a very large proportion of students, every restaurant serves fish on Friday and even the mall food courts have Lenten specials before Easter. The differences are deeper.

Where New Orleans sometimes seems more like a Caribbean island — focused more on partying than on work and certainly not a slave to efficiency — the Jewish community is quite well-organized. For a community of its size — about 12,000 people — there are a plethora of organizations.

Along the religious spectrum are four Reform temples, one Conservative synagogue, two Orthodox synagogues and two Chabad centers. There is a Jewish federation that raises close to $3 million annually; a Jewish Endowment Foundation, under whose auspices more than 30 post-b’nai mitzvah teens have established their own endowment funds; a Jewish Family Service; a Hillel; and a JCC with two campuses. Three kosher restaurants, one that serves kosher jambalaya, etoufee (a local stew) and gumbo, thrive.

Yet, in many ways the Jewish community is infused with the ambience and culture of New Orleans.

In New Orleans, church and state are not separated all that clearly, which of course creates some problems — prayers to Jesus said at the start of government meetings and statues of Jesus on the firehouse at Christmas come to mind.

But this mixing of church and state has positive effects as well.

The Jewish and Christian faith communities work closely on many civic issues, Loyola University co-sponsors a large interfaith seder, and many church groups learn more about Israel by viewing the room-sized land map of the Jewish state that is owned by the federation.

In another convergence of the Jewish community and New Orleans culture, Mardi Gras is not just for Catholics anymore.

Few people outside New Orleans know about the intertwining of Mardi Gras with high society. Debutantes serve as the queens of the parades, subdebs serve as their maids and 10-year-old boys bedecked in tights and wigs are pages.

So, although the first king of carnival in the 1870s was Jewish, until recently Mardi Gras krewes, which stage each parade, were closed to Jews. The old-line krewes still exclude Jews. However, many Jewish professionals and business people have joined the new super-krewes, which stage mega-parades with floats that stretch several city blocks.

There is now even a Jewish krewe.

Flaunting refined sensitivities of Jew and non-Jew alike, the Krewe de Jieux now marches or rather horahs through the French Quarter to kick off the Mardi Gras season. Its hand-decorated float drawn by a mule, its throws (beads, cups and glittered bagels) and the marchers’ costumes proudly proclaim the Krewe’s Jewishness and skewer Jewish and Mardi Gras stereotypes at the same time.

Instead of the traditional king and queen, the Krewe de Jieux has a big macher and Jewish American princess. Debs or subdebs or pages are nowhere in sight.

Nearly every member of the Jewish community has sustained some damage to their homes, and countless people have lost them completely; a Jewish neighborhood was located close to the breach in the levee.

Certainly, everyone has been scarred by the evacuation experience and seeing the shocking images of their city. In e-mail after e-mail, people are questioning whether they wish to return.

Because many members of the Jewish community are professionals — lawyers and doctors are quite over-represented — they have the opportunity to practice their skills anywhere. Many will be taking that opportunity.