Chanukah party to welcome back New Orleans Jewish community

With Chanukah on the way, internationally-known Judaica artist Gary Rosenthal is making sure that hundreds of Jewish families in New Orleans are equipped to celebrate the holiday.

The Hiddur Mitzvah Project from the Gary Rosenthal Collection has teamed with congregations across the country to provide more than 500 unique Chanukah menorahs and dreidels to replace pieces that were lost in the hurricane.

The pieces will be distributed at the New Orleans Uptown Jewish Community Center’s Chanukah party on Dec. 20, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Rosenthal, who will attend the party, is teaming with Dashka Roth to present the hand-crafted pieces.

Roth, whose Judaica and jewelry store is located in the French Quarter, said “the event will be a homecoming for the Jewish people of New Orleans and mark our community’s resilience.”

Debbie Pesses, Jewish enrichment director at the Uptown JCC, said the celebration “means so much to our community… so many people here have lost so much, but for this one evening we will have the opportunity to celebrate our Judaism, reconnect with other Jewish families, and return to a bit of normalcy.”

Groups at synagogues across the country made cut-glass mosaics that were sent to Rosenthal’s Maryland workshop, where they were melted, fused and mounted onto menorahs and dreidels.

Rosenthal said the project’s activities “work to teach Jewish youngsters about the role art plays in Jewish ritual, but also, we hope to teach them about the responsibility of helping others, especially in times of need.”

Among the congregations participating are Anshei Israel in Tucson, Ariz.; B’nai Jeshurun in Pepperpike, Ohio; the Cherry Hill JCC in New Jersey, the Denver JCC, Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix; Schechter Krieger Day School in Baltimore; Temple Aliyah in Needham, Mass.; Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, Calif.; and Temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y.

In Denver, Jewish families from around the area made 150 menorahs. In addition to the JCC, Denver B’nai B’rith Youth and Shalom Denver’s sheltered workshop held events, as did over 350 Jewish, Christian and Muslim artists at the Windows to the Design art show.

After the Chanukah party, the project hopes to donate Shabbat candlesticks, tzedakah boxes and other items.

Leslie Fischman, assistant executive director at the Uptown JCC, said the JCC in Stamford, Conn., sent Chanukah gifts that will also be distributed. A Mitzvah project coordinated 150 wrapped toys, 150 book bags with school supplies, and 150 Chanukah kits including candles, gelt and latke mix. “It is a really wonderful donation,” she said.

Other toys have been donated to the JCC and Jewish Family Services. They will work with Jewish Children’s Regional Service on distributing them at the Dec. 20 party. “All the kids are going to get Chanukah presents to take home,” Fischman said.

The authors of “Images of America: The Jewish Community of New Orleans” will be at the party signing copies of their book, which was published in late July. Irwin Lachoff is the associate archivist of Xavier University of Louisiana, and Catherine Kahn is archivist of Touro Infirmary, and project chair for Jews of New Orleans: An Archival Guide.

The party will also include hot dogs and latkes.

With more families expected to move back to New Orleans in mid-December, in advance of schools reopening in January, Fischman said “we hope we’ll have a lot of people back to enjoy it.”

Pesses said, “We are so appreciative of Gary Rosenthal’s efforts to make sure that Jewish families in New Orleans have the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah this year.”

The homecoming events will continue on Jan. 8 at 4 p.m., as the JCC hosts a Rick Recht concert and free spaghetti supper.

Reopened JCC
The Uptown JCC reopened its fitness center in late October, along with several other services. Fischman said the JCC plans to have its entire program up and running by the first of the year, including resuming regular hours. The JCC lost roughly 40 percent of its staff after Katrina, and the professional staff of 18 is currently down to eight.

The Metairie campus is being repaired following the flood. While the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans offices are open on the third floor, reopening of the rest of the facility will likely be in March or April.

The Uptown JCC will offer its summer day camp, and expects a full enrollment by picking up campers from facilities that will not be reopened. Likewise, the nursery school will reopen on Jan. 3, and Fischman said because several others in the area will still be closed, such as the one run by Tulane University for its faculty’s use, they expect to be full.

About 150 members are using the fitness center each day. Aerobics classes and YABL and Mellowball have also started meeting, with league games expected to begin in January.

FEMA is also using the Mintz Auditorium as an operational headquarters.

The JCC is already offering the “Katrina Recovery Daycare Center,” which has about 40 children ages 1 to 5 enrolled. While the facility hasn’t offered day care in the past, as families began moving back, many called to see if the JCC could offer a program. Enough nursery school teachers returned early that they were able to set it up.

Fischman explained that this helps parents who are resuming work in the area, or who are working on renovating their homes and don’t need to look after young children while they are trying to work in that environment.

“Winter Welcome Home Mini Camps” will be held the weeks of Dec. 19 and Dec. 26, for Kindergarten through sixth grade.

The JCC is also making changes in its membership policy by introducing monthly membership, instead of annual membership. “So many people don’t know what they are doing one minute to the next,” Fischman said. Many have moved into Uptown from other areas, while many Uptown residents have moved away.

“We’re trying to make life as normal as possible for the community,” Fischman said.