NOLA Federation unveils two major new community initiatives

Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow briefs local media on the new centers on Jan. 8, as ADL Regional Director Aaron Ahlquist looks on

The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans announced two new landmark programs, with the establishment of new centers to promote multicultural affairs and to work with interfaith families.

The Goldring Family Foundation Center for Jewish/Multi-Cultural Affairs was established on Jan. 1, with a major community launch event slated for the spring. The Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation Center for Interfaith Families will launch on July 1.

“I am very excited about the formation and launch of these two new Centers of excellence,” said Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “These two initiatives are critical to forming mutually-beneficial relationships between the Jewish community and the Greater New Orleans community at large, as well as tackling one of the most important topics today facing Judaism,” working with interfaith families.

“We are really the first Federation in the country to embark on a project like this,” Fielkow said.

The Center for Jewish/Multi-Cultural Affairs will bring current Federation efforts in the broader community “under one umbrella,” along with new programs focusing on four key areas — relations with the African-American and Latino communities, LGBTQ relations through the new Federation group JP NOLA, and multi-faith relations. Though part of the Federation, the center will have its own advisory board and a full-time executive director. Bradley Bain and Ina Davis are chairing the center’s board.

The Goldring Family Foundation has funded the center as a three-year pilot program. “In an era of rising antisemitism, bigotry and fracture, it is incredibly important that we look to the now and to the future to broaden our sense of community,” said Bill Goldring of the Goldring Family Foundation. “This is a much needed initiative, and I am excited to see where the Center for Jewish/Multi-Cultural Affairs leads us over the next few years.”

This is also part of an effort the Federation has undertaken over the past three years to be seen as more of a partner in the greater New Orleans community.

Over the past two years, the Federation has expanded ties with the African-American community, with a monthly radio show on WBOK to discuss issues of mutual interest to African-Americans and Jews, a speakers’ series at three local Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the annual youth civil rights trip to Selma and Birmingham.

In December 2018, Emily Schoenbaum partnered with the Federation to establish the Alex Schoenbaum Jewish Scholarship Fund for students at St. Augustine, named for her late father, founder of the Shoney’s restaurant chain. Students discuss issues facing the Jewish and African-American communities, and last month scholarships were awarded to winners of an essay contest themed to two recent events — the need for an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor in Italy to receive police protection after campaigning against antisemitism, and the recent incident when members of 504 Queens tried to see “Harriet” in a Metairie movie theater but a ticket mixup spiraled into what was seen as an instance of racial profiling.

The Federation has also partnered with the Muslim community for a Peace Weekend, held over Martin Luther King weekend, with members of the Jewish community attending Friday prayers at the mosque, and Muslims attending Shabbat services, this year at Temple Sinai. The communities will march under the same banner in the King parade.

“All of these programs will be continuing,” Fielkow said.

As part of the center’s activities, partnerships among different communities will be strengthened, building a greater coalition to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate.

The Center for Interfaith Families will provide a centralized resource and support system for interfaith partnerships and families in Greater New Orleans. Working in collaboration with area synagogues and area Jewish organizations, the Center’s goal is to create a nurturing and inclusive opportunity for people to connect to Jewish values and traditions in a self-selected manner.

“Our hope is that Jewish interfaith couples and families in New Orleans find a welcoming manner in which to explore their Jewish values and traditions,” said Sherry and Alan Leventhal, whose foundation is funding the three-year pilot program.

Teri Hunter and Alex Gershanik are chairing the center, and a national search for an executive director will take place in the next couple of months.

Fielkow noted that 58 percent of Jews are in an interfaith partnership or family, and that may be higher in New Orleans. It’s “a topic facing Judaism, not only in New Orleans but throughout the country.”

The center will be a “resource center and a safe space for interfaith families” to navigate what can be a “difficult” topic.

Fielkow said there are some outreach programs for interfaith families “but nothing centralized like what we are creating,” and the center will have an effect beyond just the Jewish community.

The center will “address what it means to live Jewishly by focusing on Jewish values rather than on biblical stories or attending services.” Educational programs will focus on navigating holidays and life cycle events, there will be community programs and programs for grandparents.

The Federation hopes to foster a connection to Judaism in children of interfaith families, create a community of acceptance, increase the Federation’s visibility in dealing with this issue and strengthen connections with community partners.

“We are grateful to the Goldring Family Foundation and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation for making this work possible, and are excited to continue evolving to serve the needs of Jewish New Orleans,” Fielkow said.

Joshua Force, who chairs the Federation’s board, also thanked the Goldring and Leventhal families for enabling the creation of these centers, which “will both focus on areas critical to the New Orleans Jewish community and our efforts to develop and deepen our connections to both Jews and non-Jews in our wonderfully diverse city.”