In 2005, things were looking up at the New Orleans Torah Academy, with an unprecedented 60 children enrolled, the most since the school’s founding more than a decade prior. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything changed. Homes, businesses, highways and schools—nothing was spared. It was as if the city itself had dissolved beneath the rushing waters.

It took more than a decade of building, planning and hoping, but today the school—now located in an airy, state-of-the-art facility—has seen its largest enrollment ever and looks forward to even more children in the years to come.

The original school building was so heavily damaged by the storm that it needed to be demolished. There were hardly any students anyway; most families had moved away and never returned.

“In those difficult years after Katrina, there were almost no children at Shabbat services,” recalls Chani Nemes, who co-directs the Chabad Jewish Center of Suburban New Orleans together with her husband, Rabbi Yossie Nemes. “The school could not reopen as it had been before. We banded together with a few other families and made a sort of a co-op school in our Chabad center.”

For years, streets that had once teemed with life were lined with a never-ending supply of mold-splotched sheetrock and rotten bedding, as the city struggled to dry out, clean up and get back on its feet.

The Nemes family had to contend with the destruction of their own home and Chabad center. (They chose to rebuild the Chabad center before focusing on their home.)

Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, Nemes, who serves as Judaic principal, says she and fellow faculty members used those years to “take a step back, view the big picture of Jewish education, research the latest trends, and see how to build the best, most advanced school possible.”

Learning comes alive with educator Nechama Kaufmann.
Learning comes alive with educator Nechama Kaufmann.

A Blessing in Disguise

They called principals and researchers, observed classrooms and read about various techniques. “In a sense, those years of downtime were a blessing in disguise,” says Nemes, whose youngest child—a 5-year-old—is a student at the school.

When the school reopened in 2014 in a gleaming new building constructed with FEMA funding, there were only 24 students to welcome, mostly children of Chabad-Lubavitch emissary families who had been learning in the co-op.

Board president Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin says that no efforts were spared in the building’s construction, even though it meant borrowing money. “We believed that having an inviting, modern and spacious facility would attract people to the school,” says Rivkin, who is also director of Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at Tulane University and rabbi of the nearby Anshe Sfard Synagogue. “Five years ago, I posted on Facebook that the school could have 80 students by 2018. At the time, it seemed like fanciful thinking, but thanks to our dedicated and creative staff and lots of Divine assistance, it is becoming a reality.”

Nemes says the school’s small student body works to its advantage, allowing educators to concentrate on every individual pupil, allowing each to blossom and excel at his or her own pace.

“This is a school where every child—and every parent—is important,” attests Orit Naghi, who moved to New Orleans in 2013 and enrolled her son in the school the following year, right when the new building was completed. “When my son started, there were eight children in his class; now there are 14 in his kindergarten/first grade. The staff greet the children like friends because that is what they truly are, devoted to every single child.”

All join together as Judaism is celebrated with joy.
All join together as Judaism is celebrated with joy.

The school incorporates a number of educational approaches, borrowing heavily from Reggio and Montessori, while retaining its own philosophy and tailor-made system that supports a dual Judaic-secular curriculum.

“Torah Academy attracts all kinds of students,” says Naghi, a native Jerusalemite, whose family is originally from Iran. “Just like spice makes food so tasty, it’s the people who make this school so special. They are the secret spice.”

Naghi says the school works to ensure that children from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds feel welcome and respected. She says her family back home gets a kick out of her children talking about Shabbos, rather than using the Sephardic/Israeli pronunciation of Shabbat.

Nemes says another great asset that has helped the school is the cadre of young people who staff it, including Rabbi Yossi and Rivkie Chesney, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., who joined the staff in 2016.

Since her arrival, Rivkie Chesney—who serves as director of Hebrew studies for early childhood through first grade, and is concurrently completing her master’s in Montessori leadership—has introduced a comprehensive enrichment program that includes music, gardening, visual art, physical education and cooking.

Her husband focuses on the school’s finances, including securing state and federal funding, most notably state tuition vouchers for eligible families.

Rivkie Chesney says that the vouchers have been a deal-breaker for some families, making a Jewish education an affordable option for those who otherwise would have sent their children to public schools.

The staff received significant training from the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools (CoJDS).
The staff received significant training from the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools (CoJDS).

From the Bottom Up

The lion’s share of the increased enrollment is in the younger grades, which receives a strong incoming kindergarten class from the school’s early-childhood center, now rebranded as Preschool of the Arts.

The staff members, too, are climbing the grades along with their students.

Naomi Smith began as early-childhood director in 2015 and now also serves as academic director of secular-studies for the elementary school. “I had faith from the beginning that this school was going to grow,” says the Louisiana native, whose master’s degree is in special education with a focus on early intervention. “Everything we do is research-based, and the practices are top of the line.

“Our wonderful staff-student ratio allows us to focus on every child, and watch them develop academically and socially. There is a very positive environment, which feels like a family. If someone needs help, there will always be someone there to help them,” continues Smith, who previously worked in the public-school system. “Larger schools cannot offer that degree of attention and customization.”

Students meet with a U.S. veteran.
Students meet with a U.S. veteran.

Even as the school grows—there are currently 69 students, and they are expecting 75 students for the 2018-19 academic year—administrators say the school will remain relatively small for the foreseeable future.

Nemes reports that several native-born alumni of the pre-Katrina school are now moving back to town, thanks to the availability of good Jewish education of their children.

She says the school received significant help from CoJDS (Consortium of Jewish Day Schools), which held a regional training program in the city that offered significant training and support from experts sent down by the organization.

“It meant so much to us to know that they believed in us, and that they recognized what we had believed all along,” says Nemes, “that we are building an excellent school upon the foundations Katrina had almost washed away.

“When we see today that we have such a wonderful school with a growing enrollment, it is a blessing we didn’t even dream of 10 years ago.”

Facing the Gulf of Mexico, Torah Academy students perform Tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into the water’s depths in the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Facing the Gulf of Mexico, Torah Academy students perform Tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into the water’s depths in the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The new school offers a safe play environment to be enjoyed by the youngest set.
The new school offers a safe play environment to be enjoyed by the youngest set.
The Torah Academy curriculum includes a number of enrichment classes, including cooking.
The Torah Academy curriculum includes a number of enrichment classes, including cooking.
The Preschool of the Arts enrollment begins at 3 months and continues until kindergarten.
The Preschool of the Arts enrollment begins at 3 months and continues until kindergarten.
Students and staff celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Students and staff celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.