The New Orleans Jewish Day School Reemerges From Disaster
by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
Metairie, LA – Kindergarten classroom, destroyed. Administrative offices, gone. First and second grade facilities, upended. Materials and resources, washed away or damaged.
And that was just on the first floor.
Hurricane Katrina’s rage and the resulting floodwaters five years ago this week spared precious little, and the New Orleans Jewish Day School – situated here on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain just west of the city – was no exception.
“The storm demolished us,” said Dr. Bob Berk, head of school. “The school was wiped out.”
Nearly 100 students, from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, had barely begun the academic year when Hurricane Katrina changed everything.
For the school and the broader Jewish community, the loss was a blow in a region boasting a pre-Katrina population of about 10,000 families. Many of them fled to places like Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, or found alternative schools for their children after the disaster.
“Our infrastructure of families supporting our school was gone,” said Berk, noting that about 20 percent of the community was lost. “Rebuilding buildings is easy. But rebuilding community is not.”
In the immediate region, which claims a rich Jewish heritage, no other Jewish day school even exists. So reestablishing the institution became a priority for school and communal officials locally and nationally.
Jewish day schools are central venues for formal Jewish education, and are also reflective of a community’s vitality and commitment to generational continuity, making revitalization of this school a must, many said.
“The Jewish community day school is a cornerstone institution in virtually every Jewish community in North America, so its success needs to be the concern of everyone,” said Dr. Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.
Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metaire, a past president of the day school’s board, said the school is critical to the Jewish community’s strength and growth in New Orleans and the surrounding region.
“This school and bringing it back is a powerful symbol of hope for the Jewish community here,” said Rabbi Loewy, whose daughter graduated from the school just two months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
“Rebuilding New Orleans Jewish Day School is a catalyst for the rebuilding of this entire community. Without a Jewish day school, we could not attract Jewish professionals to the New Orleans community to rebuild and recreate it.”
With national attention focused on New Orleans and the region after the hurricane, Jewish foundations and other organizations have directed resources toward the school’s renaissance.
And, in many ways, rebuilding the school has allowed officials to re-imagine it.
The Covenant Foundation, for example, made a 2007 Signature Grant to the school to create a formal Judaic Studies program – with two full-time teachers – focusing on Hebrew language study and critical thinking based on Jewish text study.
“This grant allowed us to really focus in on what it means to have a high-quality Judaic Studies program,” Berk said. “Prior to the hurricane there was not much consistency in terms of the curriculum. The grant enabled us to build it so it is not so much teacher or personality dependent.”
The Foundation is also underwriting a program to introduce technology in the classroom and strengthen its use. The school is now a pilot site for innovative, digitally based learning programs and measurement tools, positioning it as a leader in technology-enhanced education.
Such developments allow the New Orleans Jewish Day School not only to compete with other schools for students, but also to firmly reestablish the institution as an anchor in the Jewish community, school officials noted.
“This funding is incredibly critical for the progress we are making,” said Karen Remer, president of the board of the school.
Rebuilding the school community is taking place on other fronts as well. The number of afterschool and evening programs for students, families and alumni has increased, as have the choices of afterschool clubs and informal educational opportunities.
“I look at kids who graduated from our school before Hurricane Katrina, and they have an amazing Jewish identity,” said Berk. “So it’s not as if these things weren’t being done.
“Due to the nature of rebuilding, we need to be even more organized and thoughtful about it all. With such a small population, these things don’t happen naturally. When there isn’t the critical mass of people to make these things happen, you have to think about it and push it.”
Berk, who became head of school in 2009, succeeded Gwynne Bowman, who he lauds for leading the institution in the first phases of rebuilding.
“Much of the credit for rebuilding in the immediate aftermath of Katrina should go to Gwynne, as well as to all of the local and national funders supporting us for the last few years,” he said.
The school has had measurable successes. Although middle school grades were eliminated after the hurricane, 51 students are enrolled for the current academic year, up from 17 in 2006. And young, involved Jews are returning to the area or moving there for the first time, giving school officials hope that they will enroll their children.
“The New Orleans Jewish Day School’s slow but steady pace of recovery is at once to be expected and, at the same time, an extraordinary, inspirational tale,” said Kramer. “Dr. Bob Berk is a field leader, so the school is in very good professional hands. The time is right for visionary philanthropic leaders to connect with the school to ensure that this amazing institutional journey has a happy ending.”
On Aug. 28th, as the city, region and country began marking the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, school officials joined the larger Jewish community and others at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center for Havdalah and a marking of the date. The theme of the evening: “Brighter and Stronger Together.”
“There is still grieving for what was lost,” said Remer. “My community is not what it was. But then again, look at what we’ve accomplished. And that is just amazing.”
Additional information about the New Orleans Jewish Day School can be found on the school’s website.