I didn't realize until I was at the Jewish Federation of Greater N.O.'s planning meeting this afternoon that this had made the Times-Picayune's front page.
My initial reaction to the Federation's idea to pay a $15,000 no-interest loan to families who want to move down here (among other incentives - see here) is: great beginning. My husband's half-joking reaction was: "We should have waited to move down here, then."
I must emphasize the word beginning.
I stood before everyone at that meeting after the initial presentations of the five task force leaders, after Frederick Weil's stats on the Greater N.O. Jewish Community, after emphases on what the community itself must do to strengthen itself. I stood up, told 'em my name, said that my husband and I had moved back here a year and a half ago after four years in NYC. I told them that the reason why we moved away was because it wasn't good for us, job-wise, to stay. I told them that Dan's workplace is not in the Greater New Orleans area, that he has a monster commute to Baton Rouge every day. I told them that they can talk about attracting young families in my age group all they want, they can talk about how to bring more unaffiliated and intermarried couples into the existing Jewish organizations all day, but when there are no jobs to support these people, all of this talk becomes moot. I sat down, feeling as though everyone could see the smoke coming out of my ears.
Dan and I are here because we love the community and always have. We met in this community. We got married here. We bought a house here that we had to leave. We were fortunate to be able to hang onto it, because we could rent the whole thing out, but, in all the time we have lived in New Orleans, pre-NYC and after, we always keenly felt the absence of other Jewish singles and couples who were our age. Most of our friends here in the Jewish community are older than we are... they are closer to our parents in age. Because Dan and I had a strong identification as Jews, because we became affiliated with a synagogue when we were young...well, it marked us as significantly different people in the scheme of things locally.
Mind you, on a certain level, this is a problem in secular Jewish communities all over this country. Dan and I were active in a synagogue in Queens where we lived. I became a board member nearly a year before we moved back down south, and when I told the board at the last meeting I attended that we were moving, a member indignantly stood up and asked me if I knew that Dan and I were going to move back, after all the time we'd spent in Queens as active members. I told her that because of Dan's job prospects, and the high cost of living in the New York area, we knew we were going to have to move eventually, just not as soon as we did. Her question hinted at betrayal, but she knew the answer. And this lady is one of many who are wringing their hands over the problem of how to get people our age involved and primed for leadership positions in Jewish communities all over this country.
At the planning sub-meeting I attended, the meeting's focus was how to get the people our age to become affiliated, involved, and ready to carry the torch of Jewish leadership and involvement. Secular Jewish communities are reaping an assimilationist whirlwind that actually has its roots in the nineteenth century, when Reform Judaism was developed in Germany by Abraham Geiger. Reform took its cues from Protestant Christianity and the emancipation of German Jews and remade its worship services. Prayers were chanted in Hebrew and in the vernacular. Sermons were given in the vernacular. Men and women were allowed to sit together in the sanctuaries, part of the buildings which were called temples, rather than the shuls of the Judaism of old. Many other alterations or outright omissions of Jewish law were woven into the fabric of Reform - all in the name of moving towards what was thought to be the future.
(An example of this is worded into the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885: We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization. )
It was Judaism without Israel. It was Judaism as a religion and not a cultural identity. And, over time, it served assimilation well. Because large numbers of several generations of Reform Jews have received their heritage in this way, they haven't grown beyond their earliest impressions of temple life. They have turned away from Jewish life in large numbers, and have channeled their energies into being successful in the non-Jewish world instead.
It is why there are beautiful, empty temples such as this one in small towns all over this country. Money is much more important for people to pursue. It is a fact of life, period. Reform Judaism and other secular forms of Judaism, coupled with America's reputation as a land of opportunity free of cultural and class constraints (yeah, right...) have helped do what Nazism never could - it has ensured that the Jewish population here stays on a plateau, never increasing in large numbers, but constantly causing the community to reevaluate the numbers it has and monitor them closely for signs of shrinkage.
New Orleans' Jewish population went from 9,500 to 6,600. We lost a third of the donors and leaders of our community here due to the levee breaches. But the ties to the community here are very strong. The cooperation between different denominations of Judaism here is truly something to behold (my NYC friends are incredulous when I tell them of interdenominational activities held down here - it's a rarity). People who have had to leave and relocate really do want to come back. Cold hard reality, however, dictates that the people who come have to have jobs that will support them. Jobs that will enable them to raise families. Not to mention a standard of living that will help this all out, too.
Job fairs and networking were afterthoughts at the planning meeting. They should not have been.
When I walked over to the room where the sub-meeting was being held, I was stopped by many people, mostly older ones, who said that what I had said was right. "It's just that it's a problem this city has had for decades - it didn't start when the levees breached," I told them. "I don't want it all to go down the drain this way."
These were fathers, mothers, grandparents, who nodded their heads. They want their children to come home. They want to see their grandchildren.
It starts with a little bit of assistance with moving expenses. It had better not end there...