Gumbo, the official dish of the state of Louisiana, combines many singular ingredients to create a beloved dish unique to this special part of our country. With foundations in many cultures — French, Spanish, African, indigenous, German and Spanish — gumbo describes the exciting diversity that is the New Orleans community. According to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, this symphony of traditions has also helped shape a thriving 250 year-old pluralistic Jewish community in the Crescent City.
With a population of just 10,000 Jews, New Orleans is home to a thriving Jewish infrastructure. Four reform temples, two traditional Orthodox shuls, several flourishing Chabad centers, a blossoming conservative synagogue, one of the earliest PJ Library programs, three kosher dining options, and two Jewish day schools support a highly engaged Jewish community.
Eight years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina decimated our city and left an enduring impact on the New Orleans Jewish community. Immediately following the storm, this number dropped by one-third as families fled the city for safety.
Though tragic and devastating, the storm presented our community with an opportunity to grow, rebuild and revitalize itself through the collaboration of community organizations and implementation of innovative programs that helped residents move back home and welcomed newcomers from across the country.
Reflecting the community of which it is a part, the Community Day School of New Orleans embraces strong Jewish education and values the gumbo of its pluralistic population. This is a tradition that has only grown stronger as the city rebounds and rebuilds from the blows struck by Katrina.
The school straddles both our Jewish identity and the diversity of our student body. All of our students participate in daily tefillah, Jewish studies and Hebrew language classes. School concludes each Friday with Kabbalat Shabbat. Just as important, our program emphasizes walking through the world wearing Jewish shoes (in addition to a kippah!). Our behavior guidelines are based on Maimonides’ teachings of teshuva. Our community service engagement is spurred by our desire to help make the world whole, the process of tikkun olam. Our celebrations are tempered with the knowledge that others may be less fortunate and so are punctuated by the giving of tzedakah.
We visit our Jewish elders. Kashrut guidelines are in place, and a mashgiach supervises our kitchen.
Nationally, Jewish day schools are faced with changes and challenges. The economic downturn of 2008, the charter school movement, and the exciting developments in supplemental religious education have all impacted the day school landscape, leading to declines in enrollment and changing student populations. As each Jewish community is unique, so is the response of each Jewish day school.
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all anything for Jews, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution for Jewish day schools. What this day school is doing is embracing this opportunity to be inclusive and welcoming of all students, to innovate our curriculum, and to grow in a proactive manner that represents the needs of our community while maintaining the roux of our Jewish traditions. We choose the gumbo.
As the new Head of the Community Day School, I have experienced a warm Southern welcome that is unlike anything I’ve ever known. I have been embraced by this exceptional community, and have found it to be deeply committed to a successful future for the Community Day School here in New Orleans. Our foundation is based on a thousands-year-old tradition of Jewish wisdom and intellect, preparing each student to succeed, and to be a mensch, in the 21st century.
And that’s the flavor of the pluralistic gumbo that one finds here in the New Orleans Jewish community, one that will flourish in its own unique and diverse way for many years to come—one that I’m very proud to be a part of.
Sharon Pollin is the Head of School at the Community Day School in Metairie, Louisiana. She can be reached at email@example.com
After Katrina, New Orleans Jews Bounce Back by Sticking to Polyglot Roots