Friday, June 26, 2015

Jewish community demonstrates solidarity with Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

Courtesy @JewishChas via Twitter

In an extraordinary display of unity, a broad cross-section of American Jewish organizations have joined to declare this coming Shabbat, beginning the evening of June 26 and ending the evening of June 27, to be a "Shabbat of solidarity with the African-American community."

The June 17 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine church members were killed by a white supremacist, spurred this call, which was issued on June 23. Congregations were urged to reach out to AME churches with expressions of support.

Several congregations in the South are doing events to mark the Shabbat of solidarity, but the number able to do so was limited by the time of year as well as the short time frame. In some cases, retiring or relocating rabbis have already left congregations, while many other rabbis are on vacation or at their movements’ summer camps.

The organizations who have endorsed this call to action include: Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbinical Council of America, Orthodox Union, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, in association with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Rabbinic Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North America, AJC, Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Hillel.

In New Orleans, Anshe Sfard will have a program following the 9:15 a.m. service. Around 11:30 a.m., Rabbi David Polsky will speak briefly on "Anger and Understanding."

After that, Rev. Keith J. Sanders, pastor of Union Bethel AME Church in Central City will speak. At the conclusion of the program, there will be a Kiddush lunch.

Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El will welcome Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, to speak at the 9:30 a.m. service on June 27.

Douglas serves on the boards of several non-profits and has published articles on human rights, community organizing and social change in Social Policy, Southern Exposure, and the Howard Law School Journal.

Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom will have a solidarity Shabbat with lay leader Mary Dougherty giving a talk about the Jewish response to racism. The June 26 service is at 7 p.m.

B’nai Sholom Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar, who is on maternity leave, called the shooting in Charleston an “atrocity” and noted that “As a Jewish congregation in the South we have an added obligation to make ourselves aware of the legacy of racism, and when possible to act appropriately in response.”

Beth Israel in Metairie and Knesseth Israel in Birmingham are also planning to take part in the effort.

“The Jewish community has long-standing historic ties with the African American community going back to the Civil Rights era,” explained Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, convener of the coalition and president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. “This Shabbat of solidarity is just the latest example of us standing together in the face of bigotry and hatred. We stand together, as a united American Jewish community in calling for a Shabbat of important introspection and examination of racism in the United States. We hope to convey our support to the African-American community nationwide and show all that we will not stand for violent acts driven by hatred.”

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Kerendian's position at Metairie's Torah Academy phased out

Rabbi Kerendian in front of Torah Academy in the summer of 2014, a month before the new building opened.

Rabbi Michoel Kerendian, who became the executive director of Torah Academy in Metairie in October 2013, will leave the school effective July 31.

In an email to the Torah Academy community on June 19, Kerendian stated that the school’s board has decided to do some restructuring, including “the temporary dissolution” of the executive director position. His duties will be distributed among several others at the school.

The school just completed its first year in a new building, located at the site of its pre-Katrina building. After the levees broke in August 2005, the building was damaged beyond repair and the school re-opened in temporary quarters.

Delays with permitting and FEMA funding meant that construction on the new facility could not begin until August 2013.

The school ranges from a two-year-old preschool class to eighth grade.

Kerendian said during the last two years, “we have made incredible strides in improving education, enrollment, and organizational sustainability. Not only has it been gratifying and enjoyable, but most importantly it has resulted in a better school for our children and for our community.”

He will continue to work with the school “to make this transition as smooth as possible” and move back to Chicago in August.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Luggage fire complicates first day of camp at Ramah Darom

The first day of camp can be hectic, but for Ramah Darom, the Conservative movement’s summer camp in north Georgia, it was even more so this year.

On the first day of camp, June 9, about 150 campers arrived at the Atlanta airport. While they were brought to camp on buses, the luggage was in a separate truck, which caught fire on the highway.

The truck was able to be moved to the shoulder of the highway and the three staffers were not injured, but some bags were burned while most others were saturated by water and had a smoky odor. About 90 percent of the bags had no physical damage beyond water.

All affected campers were provided with bedding, some clothing and essential items for their first nights of camp. The day after the fire, camp staff sorted through 300 bags, returning anything that did not require further processing and working to contact families individually about the condition of their bags.

In all, over 10,000 items had to be processed and professionally cleaned, with the last of the items reaching camp on June 17.

Camp Director Geoff Menkowitz noted as Shabbat approached on June 12 that there is a tradition among campers of sharing clothes for Shabbat, so this time it was on a somewhat larger scale.

Bags that suffered fire damage were taken to a restoration company for evaluation, and the camp was working on a bulk source for luggage to replace anything damaged beyond repair.

The camp is now working on the procedures for filing claims with their insurance carrier over lost items.

Menkowitz said “As I have watched our staff rally and respond to this challenge, I have been filled with a profound sense of appreciation for strength of our Camp community.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

New Orleans an Easy draw for Jewish tourism

Julie Schwartz leads attendees to a tri-region Hadassah conference in New Orleans on a Jewish heritage tour of the city in April.


In a reader survey last year, Travel + Leisure Magazine rated New Orleans one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit. Not surprisingly, there is a large number of Jewish tourists who make their way to the area.

In 2014, New Orleans had 9.52 million visitors, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. Tourists spent $6.81 billion in the city.

With the national Jewish population at 2 percent of the total, that means close to 200,000 Jewish tourists — but Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, noted that Jews “tend to be far more mobile and a larger part of the tourism market in general,” so the numbers are likely much higher.

The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation even has a web page, “Oy! Such a Home!” about Jewish resources in the city.

Joel Brown, owner of Kosher Cajun in Metairie, said barely a day goes by without him bringing a delivery to out-of-towners at a hotel, a convention or business meeting, from a sandwich to a supply of kosher groceries.

Weil said the attraction to New Orleans is very broad-based because of the area’s culture, wide range of activities and history, rather than just coming to see Jewish New Orleans. “It’s not like Prague where you are doing a Jewish pilgrimage, or Rhode Island where you’re going to Newport to see America’s oldest synagogue.”

Whatever the motivation, Jewish tourists are flocking to New Orleans and they are interested in the local Jewish community.

Brown said that is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his business — meeting the visitors, playing Jewish geography and answering their questions. The first thing they usually ask, he said, is about the community, and then Katrina is usually one of the next questions.

A significant portion of New Orleans visitors comes for conventions. After Katrina, numerous Jewish organizations made a point of supporting the then-recovering convention market by having their meetings in New Orleans.

In recent years, major Jewish conventions have included United Synagogue Youth, TribeFest, Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, the Jewish Community Centers Association biennial, Jewish War Veterans, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Men of Reform Judaism, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The city hosts dozens of conventions each year that each draw at least 3,000 participants. Many of those conventions, especially in the legal, medical and educational fields, have a significant proportion of Jewish delegates.

Some tourists are attracted to uniquely Jewish expressions of New Orleans life, such as early in Mardi Gras season when the two Jewish Krewes, Jieux and Mishigas, march in their respective parades.

Touro Synagogue’s JazzFest Shabbat is a similar draw for Jews attending JazzFest. The annual event packs in a full house for Shabbat services and a special jazz performance. Touro Executive Director Kerry Tapia estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of the crowd is from out of town.

Anshe Sfard often is the point of entry for visitors, as the closest synagogue to the French Quarter and CBD. The small Orthodox congregation routinely has visitors on Shabbat, sometimes hosting a dozen or so conventioneers.

The Shabbat before the Super Bowl, they had about 30 visitors.

Because of the large number of Jewish tourists, New Orleans has kosher availability far beyond what is normal for a Jewish community of roughly 10,000 — especially given that the community is predominantly Reform.

In Metairie, there are Casablanca and Kosher Cajun. In New Orleans, Waffles on Maple is near Tulane, and another location in Metairie is planned, along with a new kosher restaurant in the Warehouse District. Also Uptown is Hillel’s Kitchen at Tulane Hillel, which is open to the general community.

Additionally, tourist “must-do” stops are under kosher certification — beignets at CafĂ© du Monde and pralines from Aunt Sally’s. Zapp’s potato chips are also kosher — even the Cajun Crawtators.

Places that are not kosher certified but of interest to the community include the Philadelphia-meets-Louisiana Stein’s Deli, the new and renowned Shaya Israeli restaurant, Israeli-owned steakhouse Doris Metropolitan, Green to Go at the Uptown Jewish Community Center and Mardi Gras Zone. Bagel establishments, though, have been a bit more fleeting in recent years.

Because travelers who keep kosher tend to check on availability before traveling somewhere, Brown advertises in the Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper in New York, and a national kosher restaurant magazine.

Brown said a kosher meal can be had in just about any restaurant in the city, “made by us, on china, with silverware.” A few years ago, convention officials noted the number of Jewish VIPs coming to town and asked Brown to develop something beyond the typical pre-packaged kosher meals, so he developed these meals, which are double-wrapped so they can be heated in a non-kosher oven, and which come with extensive preparation instructions.

This way, if there is a business luncheon for 20 people and two or four happen to be kosher, they have an easy option and don’t just have to drink and not eat.

Because of their kosher expertise, Kosher Cajun also can supply halal, gluten-free or dairy-free meals as needed.

Belinda Dahan said Waffles on Maple has done some catering for conventions, and they have sent many meals downtown.

Federation and Chabad routinely field inquiries about services available to Jewish travelers.

While Jewish history may not be the motivating factor for the bulk of Jewish tourists, New Orleans is becoming one of two anchor points for Jewish tours of the Deep South. Many groups touring the Mississippi Delta’s Jewish history bookend the trip with New Orleans and Memphis as the starting and ending points.

In late August, the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati will have a five-day “Travels in American Jewish History” trip to New Orleans.

In the aftermath of Katrina, a large number of Jewish congregations and other groups did mitzvah trips to New Orleans, to help in the city’s rebuilding process. With the 10th anniversary of the storm approaching, those groups are still coming.

The Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth does an annual Summer Experience, bringing teens to New Orleans for two weeks of volunteering and local touring, with a side trip to the Jacobs Camp in Mississippi, and civil rights sites in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham.

With roughly 2,250 Jewish students, Tulane University brings a lot of Jewish families Uptown. In recent years, tour guide Julie Schwartz has led sold-out tours of Jewish New Orleans for those families.

“Jews want to hear about the Jewish history of the places they visit,” Schwartz said, adding that they feel pride when they see the large number of contributions local Jews have made to civic life in New Orleans.

It isn’t just Jewish tours — non-Jewish tourists are often exposed to New Orleans Jewish history. For example, the Historic New Orleans Cemetery District Tour includes the Dispersed of Judah cemetery on Canal Street.

There are also numerous walking tours that highlight a wide range of Jewish sites.

“Anyone who comes to New Orleans has an amazing time,” Brown noted.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Remembering murdered rabbi, "America's Torah" effort coming to Deep South

Update: As of the morning of June 1, America's Torah is postponing its Alabama part of the trip and will likely be in the state in July. We will update as we get more information.


“America’s Torah” will be rolling through the Florida panhandle and Alabama this week as part of a planned two-year, 50-state journey.

The Torah caravan will be at Chabad of the Emerald Coast in Destin on May 31 at noon, then will be in Mobile, in Montgomery on June 1, Birmingham on June 2 and Huntsville on June 3. On June 5 they will arrive in Atlanta.

Israel Labkowski said the impetus for writing the Torah began on Aug. 9, 2014, when his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Raksin, was shot to death in broad daylight while walking to Shabbat services in North Miami Beach. There still has not been an arrest in the case.

He noted the tradition of writing a Torah scroll in memory of someone who has died as a legacy of that person, and after talking with family and friends he decided that “the only way that I could truly honor my beloved father in law’s righteous legacy and the blatant injustice done to him was to express to the world that which was absent on that Saturday,” a message of respect and unity “to all cultures, religions and races.”

One component of the trip is writing a Torah in an RV in all 50 states, which Labkowski said is a first. “The Raskin Torah March” is expected to conclude in Washington.

Individuals or groups can sponsor letters in the Torah at $18 each, in person or online.

The other part, the universal message, is to spread word of the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism teaches is the moral code that God expects of all humanity. They plan to visit with mayors, city leaders, schools, police and fire departments, spreading “a message of peace and respect among humankind” based on the Noahide laws.

Because of Raskin’s murder, they especially want to visit with law enforcement. “We need to support our police… what is happening in Baltimore and what happened in Ferguson is not acceptable,” and it is necessary to “emphasize how important they are in our society.”

When they visit with police, they collecting pins that are going on a large flag, and Labkowski hopes to present the flag and pins to the president when the journey is completed.

On June 2 they will meet with the Sheffield Fire Department, and on June 3 they are scheduled to meet with Huntsville Police.

Other visits in Alabama have not been finalized, but Labkowski said they welcome the opportunity to visit with congregations, groups, civic leaders. “We try to put together one event” in a city, then “the rest of the day they will go and meet people, free-lance.”

Anyone interested in a visit should contact them, he said, and assistance in making arrangements with local police departments is especially welcome.

The journey began on March 1 at the spot where the murder took place, then the RV headed to Key West to start the national tour.

In recent days, the tour has been to Florida State University, the Gainesville Police Department and Torah Academy in Jacksonville. In Orlando, the mayor proclaimed May 21 as the Raskin Torah March Day.

Even a mechanical breakdown is seen as a blessing, because they met someone Jewish at a tire store and gave him the chance to put on tefillin.

After heading up the East Coast this summer, the RV will head West and South in the fall, perhaps visiting Mississippi and Louisiana then.

In light of what happened to Raskin, Labkowski said, “we plan on setting an example to the American society of how a person should react to an injustice. Instead of focusing on the negative, we must focus all our strength on the positive influence by being ‘a light unto the nations’.”

Rather than just talking about a more peaceful world, he sees this journey as a way of “getting out there and doing it.”

New Orleans community can identify with Houston flooding

While Jews around the world have been watching the effect of flooding on the Jewish community of Houston, for the Jewish community of New Orleans the images hit home in a more direct way.

In August 2005, the levees around New Orleans failed following Hurricane Katrina, inundating the city with as much as 12 feet of water in some areas. The entire city had to evacuate, for weeks and months instead of days.

In a statement, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans noted how “Houston welcomed our New Orleans Jewish community with open arms, and displayed extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity in helping those who were displaced. 5,000 Jews were taken in, fed, clothed, and housed. We were welcomed to Houston's synagogues and day schools, and offered childcare for free.”

Because “there is no one who can relate to this kind of tragedy more than us” the New Orleans community is publicizing and urging donations to the Houston Federation’s online donations mailbox for flood relief efforts. Houston’s Jewish Family Service will assist community members in need of short-term housing and support.

The New Orleans-based Jewish Children’s Regional Service, which serves a seven-state region that includes Texas, is offering replacement children’s books, toys or other necessary children’s items to those who need them.

Houston has a Jewish community of 40,000. A major area of flooding was along Braeswood Boulevard, where much of the Jewish community lives. United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston and Congregation Beth Israel were flooded, and the rabbi emeritus from UOS had to be evacuated by canoe.

The Houston JCC also had flood damage.

Two members of Houston’s Jewish community apparently died in the flooding. Shirley Alter, 85, and Jack Alter, 87, were on a rescue boat on May 26 with their daughter. After a few minutes the boat capsized and the Alters were swept away. Shirley Alter’s body was recovered later in the morning, and another body, believed to be that of Jack Alter, was found late on May 28. The identity was confirmed mid-day on May 29.

For comprehensive coverage of the flood and its aftermath in Houston, visit the Jewish Herald-Voice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Donaldsonville museum hosts special Baton Rouge screening of "Rosenwald"

Chandra Lester, Kathe Hambrick-Jackson and Darryl Gissel were in the Louisiana delegation to the first Rosenwald Schools conference, held in Tuskegee in 2012 (SJL file).


“Rosenwald,” a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner, will have its premiere in New York in August, but there will be a chance to preview it in Louisiana next month.

The River Road African History Museum in Donaldsonville will host a free screening of the documentary on June 2 at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge. The free 7 p.m. screening will include a discussion led by retired Louisiana State University Professor Thomas Durant on the lasting social impact of the Rosenwald Schools and their relevance in enhancing schools and communities today. Reservations can be made here.

“Rosenwald” is the story of Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school but rose to become the president of Sears. Influenced by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, this Jewish philanthropist joined forces with African-American communities in the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 schools in rural areas during the early part of the 20th century.

Rosenwald put up seed money to build these schools using standardized designs, as long as the local community took an active role, whether through fundraising or participating in the building process. With desegregation in the 1960s, most of the buildings fell into disuse, and today few remain. There is an active campaign to restore those that are left into educational facilities or community centers.

For the River Road museum, which recently had to cut its hours for the first time while grappling with a funding shortfall, the film is particularly significant.

Museum Director Kathe Hambrick-Jackson learned years ago that the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, also called the Romeville School, was slated to be torn down by the St. James Parish school board. Because it was “the cornerstone for educating African American children in St. James Parish” from the 1930s to the 1960s, she got the board to donate it to the museum in 1996.

Only after moving the building to Donaldsonville did she realize that it was a Rosenwald School, one of the few remaining in Louisiana. In 2013, the museum was able to start renovations on it and held a dedication with the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington as guest speaker.

The museum is just two blocks from Donaldsonville’s Jewish cemetery and three blocks from the Ace Hardware store that now occupies what was Bikur Cholim Synagogue.

The first Rosenwald school in Louisiana was constructed in 1916. Almost 400 were built in Louisiana by 1932, and by then one in four rural black schools in the state was a Rosenwald. The Romeville School was built in 1931.

Currently, only two other remaining Rosenwalds have been identified in Louisiana, including one in Plaisance, in St. Landry Parish.

After the New York premiere, “Rosenwald” will open in major markets. A September screening is scheduled for Birmingham. Before its release, it is scheduled at major Jewish film festivals and at the 106th NAACP national convention in July. Rosenwald was an early supporter of the NAACP. Kempner and Julian Bond will make a presentation after the screening.

“Rosenwald” won the 2015 Lipscomb Ecumenical Prize at the Nashville Film Festival, which is awarded to directors who have succeeded in portraying actions or human experiences sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social values.

The film will also screen at the National Trust for Historical Preservations' Rosenwald School Annual Meeting in Durham, N.C. in June. Once home to the largest number of Rosenwald Schools, North Carolina is rich with Rosenwald School restoration and rehabilitation activities.

The first Rosenwald School conference was held at Tuskegee University in Alabama in 2012.

Rosenwald awarded fellowship grants to a who's who of African-American intellectuals and artists including: Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, the father and uncle of civil rights leader Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage along with Woody Guthrie.

The list of prominent alumni and educators who attended the Rosenwald Schools include the ancestors of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Tony Award winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Anita Hill and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Kosher Creole" co-author Mildred Covert remembered

Wherever Jews have gone, Jewish cooking has become infused with local influences. In Louisiana, where the predominant ingredients are shellfish and pork, that can be a daunting challenge.

Mildred Covert, who died on May 10 at the age of 88, showed it was not an impossible mix.

With co-author Sylvia Gerson, Covert wrote four cookbooks — the “Kosher Cajun Cookbook,” “Kosher Creole Cookbook,” “Kosher Southern-Style” and “A Kid’s Kosher Cooking Cruise.”

A New Orleans native, Covert learned homemaking and cooking from her grandmother. With her strong Jewish background and love of New Orleans, she quickly experimented with melding the two worlds.

Covert and Gerson wrote the Creole book first, after repeated requests from friends for their recipes. It came out in 1982, followed by the Cajun cookbook in 1987 and Southern-style in 1993. The kid’s book came out in 1997, using recipes for kosher snacks and meals as part of the story of Hannah and Herschel, twins who sail up the Mississippi River with their grandmother.

The books were illustrated by Gerson’s son, Alan.

Maintaining a kosher home, Covert’s grandmother supervised Pearl Jones, who the family employed as a nanny, cook and housekeeper for 40 years. African-American and Jewish cooking fused in that kitchen.

Covert wrote about experiencing Yom Kippur break-the-fasts that started with Coca-Cola, then continued with fried chicken and brisket for meat meals, or Creole cream cheese and cheese grits with pickled herring and kugel if the meal was dairy.

Covert married a man who did not come from a kosher home, and after a failed attempt at red beans and rice by Covert, she decided to keep a kosher home, but quickly had to adapt recipes for some of her husband’s New Orleans-style favorites, such as gumbo without shrimp.

Covert introduced the greater New Orleans community to the concept of kosher cooking through her freelance columns in the Times-Picayune, weaving Jewish and culinary stories. She called her style of cooking “Creosher,” which was expanded back out to Kosher Creole by the cookbook publisher.

The Newcomb College Center for Research on Women honored her in 2004 for her work in defining how modern, observant Jews adapted their cooking methods to enjoy traditional southeast Louisiana cooking. As a local model and actress, she appeared in commercial work and as a guest star in the pilot episode of “Memphis Beat.”

She donated her papers to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s Culinary Library and Archive in 2013.

Aside from her writing, Covert was president of the Sisterhood at Beth Israel and was active on the Chevra Kadisha. She also was active in New Orleans Hadassah, the Jewish Community Center, Tulane/Newcomb Alumni Association and the Louisiana Arts and Crafts Council.

She is survived by her three children, Golda Spiers (Wayne) of Slidell, Susan Seiden (Jan) of Miami and Martin Covert (Cecile) of New Orleans. She is also survived by grandchildren Adam Stross (Michele), Sarah Covert (Seth Knudsen), Jeffrey Seiden (Brenna) and Maggie Covert (Tim LeBlanc), along with two great-grandchildren, Aaron and Shaya Stross. Also surviving are her sister, Celia Katz, and her brother, Abe Daniel Lubritz. She was the half-sister of the late Ennis Kops.