Early Jewish Roots of New Orleans

New Orleans at the beginning of the 19th Century was a cultural mosaic – a curious mix of people, French and Spanish, English and German, Creole and West Indian. As a port city built on trade, many Jewish immigrants settled in New Orleans from other parts of the US, Europe, South America and the Caribbean. New Orleans first synagogue, Shanarai-Chasset, was established in 1827 and later renamed Touro Synagogue after the most famous early Jewish settler in New Orleans, Judah Touro. By the 1830s, New Orleans was one of the largest cities in the US. The numbers of Jewish merchants and businessmen grew and the creation and support of civic and religious organizations, including the Hebrew Benevolent Society and Touro Infirmary, took hold.

A Jewish Home is Created

The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853 killed an estimated 10% of the population in New Orleans, As a result, in 1855, the Jews of New Orleans chartered the new Association for the Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans to create an institution for the purpose of housing and caring for poor widows and orphans. On the first of February, 1856, the Jewish Orphans Home, the first of its kind in the US, admitted its first widow and her five children, and seven other children described as “full orphans.”

The Civil War Comes to New Orleans

By 1860, the Home had 55 youth and seven widows in residence. When the Civil War reached New Orleans, the Home’s leadership faced unforeseen challenges. The city was conquered by the Union Fleet in April, 1862, and occupied for the remainder of the war. The Home endured, continued in its mission and collected donations in spite of the economic blockades and related hardships. By 1867, only two years after the end of the Civil War, the Board spoke of replacing the current institution with a far larger one. It would take almost 20 years to complete that mission, and in the interim, would undergo significant changes in its size and structure.

Opening of the New St. Charles Avenue Home

In 1887, a magnificent new building comprised of three entire blocks of Uptown New Orleans was opened at the corner of St. Charles and Peters Avenue. While the size and scope of the new “Home” was impressive, the real news was the numbers of Jewish youth whose needs made this structure necessary. There was a growing realization that these children – all 140 of them – needed the finest citizenship skills, health care, education, and vocational training possible to rise above their poverty. Workshops, apprenticeships, Jewish education, and even a brass band class were offered. As a result, within two decades, the Isidore Newman Manual Training School (Newman School) was created to formally educate the boys and girls of the Home.

The Golden City

At the dawn of the 20th Century, the Jewish Children’s Home Superintendent Chester Teller declared the Home “The Golden City,” a term that was used to deflect the stigma that an institutionalized child might feel. The Home became progressive to model citizenship ideals to the younger residents through the creation of small artificial units headed by “Big Brothers” and Big Sisters.” Uniforms were abolished and independence and individuality became a focus.

Grandchildren Reared by Grandparents

Over the years, JCRS has seen a rise in the number of children being reared by grandparents and other guardians, who are not in the formal foster care system. In 2006, JCRS started the regional Grandparents, Special Parents, and Guardians Clubs. The purpose is to provide support and education to caregivers, by way of regional newsletters and a support group in the greater New Orleans area. Members of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group appreciate the opportunity to learn from each other. After feeling isolated for so long, many were happily surprised to find other families in similar situations.

Non-Traditional Jewish Families

The modern JCRS supports financially challenged families, single-parent families, adoptive families, former foster children, immigrant families, Jews by choice, and grandparents rearing their grandchildren with Jewish summer camp scholarships, college aid, PJ Library, support groups, and assistance to children with special needs. The programs and services of JCRS are all needs-based, save for the PJ Library program which is free to any and all Jewish children under age 8. This year, JCRS will serve or fund over 1600 Jewish children from the seven Mid-South states in our region.