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New Orleans Synagogues Brace for Hard Times Ahead

NEW ORLEANS — Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation had $750,000 in pledges from congregants and was planning to update its 1970s-era building in suburban New Orleans. Now, nearly three months after the storm, the city’s only Conservative congregation faces a fiscal crisis and is simply hoping to survive.

The synagogue suffered at least $700,000 in water damage — a sum that must be paid in full, since the congregation lacked flood insurance. Monthly dues have been suspended, the vast majority of temple families have not returned home and the ultimate size of the future membership remains uncertain.

“[It’s] down to the barebones,” said the congregation’s executive director, Michael Kancher. “The next two years are going to be tough.”

The physical damage to Jewish institutions across the city is significant, as synagogues and religious schools brace for lower numbers and lean times.

The offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, located on the third floor of a brick building in suburban Metairie, survived unscathed and reopened October 17. But the building’s first two floors, which house a satellite of the Jewish Community Center and the federation-run community day school, sustained damage from water and mold. In addition to Shir Chadash, Metairie’s Reform congregation Gates of Prayer suffered significant water damage, while Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans’s Lakeview neighborhood, may have been damaged beyond repair.

Gates of Prayer, a 500-family congregation with an operating budget normally over $1 million, has a repair bill already totaling over $200,000, or half of its $500,000 maximum benefit for flood insurance. On top of the flood expenditures, the congregation is carrying a second mortgage, taken out in 1999 to finance a $3.5 million building renovation.

Despite the mounting costs, the congregation has not collected membership fees since the hurricane. It is now considering extending the term of its mortgage, and in the meantime, has let go of four secretaries as well as its part-time religious school staff. Currently only several staff members are reporting to work.

“I wear shorts, and I carry a broom,” said Louis Geiger, the synagogue’s executive director. “Our job descriptions have changed.”

National Jewish organizations have committed to helping out the synagogues financially. The Union of Reform Judaism had committed more than $600,000 to pay the salary and benefits of employees at the city’s four Reform congregations through the end of the year, and to using half of the more than $3 million it has raised so far for repairs at those synagogues and others in the region. At the organization’s biennial convention in Houston earlier this week, the URJ also launched a new fundraising campaign dubbed “SOS New Orleans” to help with ongoing expenses.

So far United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local federations, has provided the federation in New Orleans with $1.5 million to cover payroll expenses through the end of the year, as well as an additional $280,000 grant. In turn, the federation is using the funds to support its own member agencies, including the Jewish Family Service, the community day school, the JCC, and Hillel chapters at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University. According to executive director Eric Stillman, the federation also plans to submit funding requests on behalf of area synagogues.

As rebuilding efforts continue, the city’s Jewish leaders remain both clear-eyed about the difficulties they face, and hopeful for the future.

“I guess the way to put it is if we sat down now to plan out a Jewish community, we would not open two JCCs, two schools and three Reform temples,” said Rabbi Yossie Nemes, leader of the Chabad Center in Metairie. “But they’re here already, and I think they will eventually thrive and grow.”

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