by Michael J. Weil
I came to New Orleans just over four years ago from Israel to help lead the Jewish community’s recovery and rebuilding. I came across a highly resilient community but one battling with survival and mostly unable to see a vision of a positive long term future. I recalled that the word in Chinese for “disaster” also means “opportunity” and assisted the community in starting to think in that way.
A disaster is indeed an opportunity for a community to think afresh, to realize old dreams and think about new ones, and a time to remove old taboos and organizational barriers. We put together a strategic planning process that led to an ambitious rebuilding and renewal plan. One if its spearheads was the Newcomers Program that has to date brought close to 1400 mostly young Jewish newcomers to the city. The strategic plan, now at an advanced stage of implementation, includes some new building but mostly much exciting new programming, collaborations between agencies and synagogues, new initiatives like Avoda, Moishe House and LimmudFest and overall a community of vibrancy, fresh ideas and Jewish experimentation.
On a national front, the then UJC/Federation system raised $28 million to support not only the Jewish community of New Orleans but also hosting communities such as Baton Rouge and Houston and the wider non-Jewish community in the Gulf Coast. An additional $3.5 million was raised by our local Goldring and Woldenberg Foundations and the Jewish endowment Fund of Louisiana. These funds were not only significant in allowing our 19 agencies and synagogues to function after Katrina over a 2-3 year period but they also provided peace of mind to them to allow them to think long term and creatively as their operational budget deficits were covered.
One of the issues that we faced was that while most understand the need for funding for initial emergency short-term response and medium term recovery (typically 1-2 years), few in the system understood the need for funding for the long-term rebuilding and renewal of a community with limited local resources. We put together a long-range funding plan and it took a while for UJC and other foundations to appreciate how disaster recovery process indeed works in order to take advantage of the opportunity.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina there were a number of foundations who were receptive to our approaches and were willing to consider funding requests from New Orleans and out of normal grant request procedures. We hired a grant writer who assisted in indentifying prospects and put together proposals. We were fortunate to receive generous funding from the Avi Chai foundation, Jim Joseph, Covenant, Adelson, Weinberg, Bronfman and others and they were instrumental in helping some of our beleaguered institutions as well as new initiatives to stabilize and we are grateful to them.
There is a whole package here. We invested considerable effort and resources in marketing and communications. We “hired” a pro bono PR consultant. We rebranded our community, changed our logo and tag-line and produced a number of brochures, marketing materials and reports. We worked hard to get media coverage and have achieved articles and reports in the LA Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNS, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Report, Maariv, as well as extensive local media. Our task was to portray the community as not just recovering but transformed and now one of the most exciting Jewish communities in the south. I believe that we did this effectively and have continued to do so for the GA.
The funding opportunities came to an abrupt end in 2008 both as the Hurricane Gustav evacuation ended the Katrina window and as the recession kicked in. For the last two years we have returned to a relatively normal process of grant fundraising and have had to wait in line just like everybody else. In parallel we have begun a process of aggressive local fundraising to local foundations and corporate sources hitherto untapped.
The GA coming to New Orleans was no accident or coincidence. Hosting the GA was one of the strategic goals of the community. We felt that if we could host the GA then this would indeed be a sign that we are well on the road to recovery. The original agreement with JFNA called for hosting the GA in 2011. A call from the leadership in New York nine months ago asked us to bring the date a year earlier. We felt that coinciding with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the relatively robust state of the community would enable us to do that. We also were pleased to celebrate the power of the Jewish collective and how the UJC/JFNA/Federation System worked so effectively
Strategically, we also felt that hosting the GA and the International Lion of Judah would be a great opportunity to showcase our community. We hoped that delegates, Federations and foundations would learn what a vibrant and exciting Jewish community New Orleans has become and a center for Jewish service and volunteering. We invested considerable effort and limited funds in marketing the community through our booklet and video film and our booth at the GA exhibition hall. We are especially proud of the nearly 400 community volunteers who happily were present everywhere at the GA in their bright green T-shirts to act as ambassadors, tour guides, ushers and resource persons.
This GA was probably one of the largest and most complex ever. Never before has there been an International Lion of Judah conference running in parallel except in Israel. The service day was a first and a very complex operation put together by JFNA and Repair the World, working together with our Federation guides, bus captains and site captains on 35 buses and 16 different service options. There was a pre-GA charity golf tournament plus the complexity of high profile speakers such as VP Joe Biden and PM Bibi Netanyahu.
We sincerely believe that the GA has been not only good for the North American Jewish community but also very good for New Orleans. We hope that this highly engaged community will respond not only in its philanthropic giving but also by continuing to be involved and enrich this lively community. We also hope that external philanthropic sources will realize what an excellent investment we especially with our proven capacity to engage young people in the mainstream community (but that’s another article).
Our experience has shown that while money is important it is not the be all and end all. If philanthropy is used effectively, then opportunities become realities for the benefit of all.
Michael J. Weil is Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.