NOLA 300: Jewish community prospers and gives back

As the Jewish community in New Orleans observes Passover, they are continuing a tradition in the city that's almost as old as New Orleans itself.

"The first Jews to arrive came in 1757," says Julie Schwartz, co-chair of the Jewish Federation Annual Campaign. "The first immigrants that came over did not really find a Jewish community. But, they found opportunity."

Schwartz says the story of Jews in New Orleans really starts in 1801 when Judah Touro arrived. Touro was a successful businessman and donated much of his wealth back the city. He bought a building downtown and turned it into what would become Touro Infirmary.

"He started that out as a hospital for sailors and the very poor, even enslaved people, right by the river," says Schwartz. "It moved uptown to what was then a cow pasture."

Touro wasn't the only Jewish businessman in New Orleans to find success. Many of the early, popular department stores along Canal Street were Jewish-owned and -operated, including Godchaux's, Maison Blanche, and Krauss. Gustave Katz and Sydney Besthoff started a drugstore on Canal Street that would become K&B. And, Rubensteins opened in 1924 on the corner of Canal and St. Charles Avenue and is still in business today.

"Many Jews started off as peddlers and realized that they could open stores here," says Schwartz. "They could own land and they were thrilled to settle down."

The Dryades Street corridor, now Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., became another business hub for the Jewish community.

"In the late 1800s, a group of Orthodox Jews came and they settled in the Dryades Street area," says Schwartz. Kaufman's Department Store and Handelman's Furniture were recognizable names of this era. Kaufman's is now the Ashe Cultural Arts Center.

When Jewish businessmen made money, they also gave it back.

"I think what is great about New Orleans is it gave Jews opportunities that they didn't have in Europe," says Schwartz. "And, they wanted to get back to the city because of that."

Education and the arts were often the benefactors of their giving. Isidore Newman started Newman School. And, Isaac Delgado funded the creation of what became Delgado Community College and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"We are a community that continues to be very active," says Schwartz. "I think that it is part of our nature. It is part of what we feel like we need to be. We need to participate. We need to make our community better. We need to try to change things."