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(RNS) A few months ago, Galia Aharoni was well into her final year of law school at Tulane University and going back and forth about whether to stay in New Orleans or take her law degree to the West Coast or perhaps New York.
Stay or go? That’s when a friend introduced her to J-Grad, the latest effort by New Orleans’ recovering Jewish community to rebuild its numbers after Hurricane Katrina.
Before then, Aharoni had been only dimly aware of the Jewish community in New Orleans. But suddenly she was on their radar. Through J-Grad, she was invited to get-togethers that introduced her and other students to local Jewish professional and business leaders.
They made clear they wanted her to stay, that she was needed in New Orleans. To underscore their earnestness, J-Grad even guaranteed her a small cash bonus and up to $6,000 to help defray rent and student loans during the next three years.
“I felt like they really wanted to bring me into the community,” she said.
It worked. Fresh off her success at the bar exam, Aharoni, 25, is looking for work in New Orleans and planning to make a long-term go of it.
J-Grad is merely the latest in a series of aggressive recruiting efforts the Jewish community has deployed to reinvigorate itself since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina drove off an estimated 30 percent of its population.
In the years since then, a community that had shrunk to about 6,000 members has crafted a plan to rebuild their numbers, backed with private funding.
The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans believes it can count 1,000 Jewish newcomers to the city since Katrina, said Michael Weil, executive director of the federation.
“We’re being transformed from a traditional, Southern, slowly declining community heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina, to one becoming an emerging, engaged community,” Weil said. “We are considered a place to watch on the Jewish communal map.”
Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a site for experiments in Jewish community-building out of proportion to the group’s relatively small size. The city has Moishe House, an innovative center for young Jewish adults, and is one of four U.S. cities housing Avodah, a Peace Corps-like community of young Jewish volunteers on year-long stints.
An older program still markets New Orleans to young Jewish professionals and their families around the country and helps them settle here. But J-Grad targets a slightly younger audience: the estimated 350 to 400 Jewish graduate and professional school students around New Orleans.
“This is your low-hanging fruit. These are people already in the city. They love New Orleans; they love studying here, but they’re connected to the Jewish community only in a light sort of way,” Weil said. “The question is: How do we make that connection stronger?”
For about a year now, J-Grad’s sole full-time employee, Aaron Gleiberman, has marketed himself and the program mostly at his alma mater, Tulane, where more than three-quarters of local Jewish graduate students study.
Gleiberman has office space at Tulane’s career center; he attends job fairs and introduces himself to grad students. The idea: to build a mailing list of students he can invite to low-key networking events where established Jewish families can meet them and urge them to think about staying in New Orleans.
Theoretically, J-Grad aims most of its effort at graduate students, on the theory that because they’re near the end of their education, a decision to remain in New Orleans is more likely to last for years. But some undergraduates are in the mix as well.
One of J-Grad’s tools is money — not nearly enough to sway a life-changing career decision, recipients say, but enough to help a young person starting out, and enough to demonstrate the city’s earnestness.
Graduates who commit to spending at least three years in New Orleans get a $500 bonus, as well as later payments of up to $2,500 in rental assistance, $3,500 in student loan assistance and a year’s free membership to a local synagogue.
In a year, J-Grad has signed up eight students; Gleiberman’s mailing list of potential candidates numbers more than 80.
Tim Gold, who chairs the J-Grad program, say it’s the kind of initiative he wishes had been around when he graduated from Tulane in 1994.
“I saw so many of my friends … who very much wanted to be here and stay here after graduation. They stayed for a while, bartending or grad school. But they had no connections to work their way into the community. And I watched them leave, one by one. They come back for Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras, but they tell me they miss it.
“Maybe they would have stayed if they had something like this.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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