Photo by Alan Smason
The Topolosky family will serve Beth Israel starting in August
By Alan Smason, Deep South Jewish Voice
Nearly two years after flooding related to Hurricane Katrina devastated its Lakeview property, Congregation Beth Israel announced plans to hire Uri Topolosky, 28, as their new rabbi, effective August 1.
Topolosky, who is an associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, was ordained from the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005. YCT Dean and founder Avraham “Avi” Weiss, who is also senior rabbi at HIR, asked Topolosky to become an associate rabbi there following his ordination.
Topolosky, who grew up in Sharon, Mass., and Silver Spring, Md., studied in Israel at a yeshiva there for two years prior to college.
Following his return to the United States, he continued his studies at the University of Maryland for two and a half years before he graduated with cum laude honors and a bachelor’s degree.
“Essentially that was a place where I really grew in terms of what I wanted to do with my life and finding that the Jewish community was a place where I wanted to serve,” he explained.
Following a stint as the president of an Orthodox student union group at Maryland, Topolosky had what he considers a life-changing realization. “Very quickly I realized that it (Orthodoxy) was such a small fraction of the Jewish community — what I call the Jewish people,” he said. This brought about a change in his dynamic in which he now tries to reach out to all Jews from across the spectrum without being critical or exclusive in some way.
“Much of my family is Irish Catholic and that has had a profound influence on me in my understanding of the larger world community,” he continued.
Following several learning opportunities and a job working with Isralight, a birthright organization in Israel, Topolosky elected to enroll in the fall 2001 class at YCT. He says he was immediately drawn to Rabbi Weiss’s warmth and spirituality. “Two things he taught me were the notions of spiritual humility and spiritual accessibility,” Topolosky said.
Topolosky says his approach to Orthodox Judaism is to make it more open. “It is an Orthodoxy that is committed to halachah (Jewish Law) and is traditional,” he explained. “Yet it is open in the sense of accessibility of all Jews, open to cross-community and cross-denominational dialogues and relationships.”
To that end, he is respectful of all religions and all people. Topolosky says embracing others and accepting them where they are was one of his biggest roles as an associate rabbi and one he expects to continue in his new post at Beth Israel.
“I want not to judge or condemn or push others, but to embrace people where the are with a warm, spiritual presence.”
Topolosky believes in the wholeness of the Jewish people. “I am looking forward to finding increased roles for women to be engaged in our community,” he said. Another cornerstone of his belief system is a steadfast commitment to the modern state of Israel.
Topolosky says all synagogues should periodically examine if they are effectively serving their communities. “All synagogues should take a serious look at themselves and ask, ‘Are we filling a real need?’ It’s like saying we are ready to be reborn. We are ready to begin again. Right now, Beth Israel is being forced to ask these questions,” he noted.
Rather than being scared of a community in crisis, both the rabbi and his wife Dahlia admit they are drawn to the spirit and strength of the people of New Orleans. “We really wanted to go to a much smaller Jewish community where together we could make a difference,” the rabbi said.
“In fact it was inspiring to see such people who, after such loss and destruction, could have so much hope and passion to rebuild. I was really moved,” his wife acknowledged.
“It says to me that this is a community that is committed to growth and is very attractive,” he added.
With the congregation presently occupying donated space at Gates of Prayer in Metairie, Topolosky is assessing what additional steps he should be taking as a leader of the synagogue’s rebuilding efforts. “Beth Israel is developing plans for rebuilding and we’re looking to actively recruit young people in our community,” he says. “That is part of my responsibility and we are hoping to attract young couples from across the country to join us.”
(Editor’s note: The author has been a member of the Board of Directors of Congregation Beth Israel for the past decade. Previously, he served as Treasurer and Second-Vice President while a member of the Executive Board.)
Two addresses will highlight how immigrants adapted to new life in Louisiana, Mississippi
Sociologist Anny Bloch-Raymond will give two addresses on aspects of Jewish life in New Orleans next month, in a series co-sponsored by the French Consulate in New Orleans, the Alliance Francaise of New Orleans, and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
Bloch-Raymond has a Masters degree in American civilization from the University of Paris, and a doctorate in Social Sciences from the University Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. Currently a sociologist and a member of the National Center of Scientific Research at the Center of Social Anthropology, she also teaches Jewish culture in the anthropological department of the University of Toulouse LeMirail and in the Institute of Jewish Studies.
Bloch-Raymond is preparing a new book titled "Jewish Migrants from the Banks of The Rhine to the Banks of the Mississippi." Her present field of research is migration from France and Germany to the South of the United States and the issue of transplantation during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The first event will be "Languages, ways of cooking and religions: French inspiration, Jewish rites, and Creole practices" on June 13 at 6:30 p.m.
The lecture will explore the ways in which French Jewish immigrants to New Orleans adapted their cooking practices to incorporate Creole traditions. The lecture is presented by the Consulate General of France in partnership with the Historic New Orleans Collection, at the Collection's Royal Street complex.
The immigrants who settled in New Orleans maintained their French Jewish heritage even if they had adjusted it. Cooking combined French and Southern mode, gumbos and matzo balls, gefilte fish, kugels, and pecan pies. Many families compiled their own recipe books. Some became professional cooks, such as Beulah Ledner, who created a French doberge adapted from Austrian cake, and opened a bakery in New Orleans in 1933, becoming very successful.
Crawfish, shrimp, and oysters, which are not kosher, were often tolerated. With the return to Jewish tradition and the respect of the dietary laws, a real work of invention and imagination has been done by genuine cooks to adapt the traditional Creole cuisine to the traditional Jewish one.
Admission is free, but reservations are requested to ensure adequate seating. Reservations can be made by calling 504.523.4662.
On June 14 at 6 p.m., the topic will be "From the banks of the Rhine River to the banks of the Mississippi: a long story of the presence of the French Jews in Louisiana."
In the mid-1880s Jews from Alsace-Lorraine left their homes and were attracted to the area along the Mississippi River. They mainly landed in New Orleans and the majority of them settled in small towns along the river. They gave their names to the towns of Geismar, Klotzville, and Marksville in Louisiana. They owned plantations in Bunkie, White Castle, and Reserve. There are still dry goods stores and general stores bearing their names: Abraham Levy, Wolff, Lemann, Lorman, Fraenkel. They were founding members of synagogues in New Orleans, Donaldsonville, Alexandria, and Opelousas, along with the German migrants that they married or opened businesses with.
The June 14 talk will be at the Cabildo.
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