For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the rich history of the Jewish Orphans Home in New Orleans. For nearly two decades after the orphanage closed in 1946, the same imposing red brick structure -- a refuge for up to 150 orphans, half-orphans and other dependent children from throughout the Deep South -- housed the Jewish Community Center and the offices of the Home's successor agency, now known as the Jewish Children's Regional Service. Throughout the 1960s, before and after the old building was torn down to make way for the current JCC, I regularly visited the site to attend day camp, take ballet lessons, and meet with social workers. I am also keenly aware that - had the Home remained open for about two more decades -- I likely would have lived there.
The years I have spent researching and writing about Bessie Margolin, one of the Home's many accomplished alumni, have only deepened my curiosity about the orphanage, including its administrators, benefactors, the broader Jewish community that shaped and sustained it, and, most especially, the children who lived there. Through archival research and oral histories, I am investigating the geographical and social journeys that brought children to the Home, and the extent to which they had an impact on the communities in which they lived as adults. One of many questions I am exploring is this: Did the Home's alumni lead lives that reflected a commitment to social justice? Did they demonstrate qualities of humanity and integrity expressed in Yiddish as menschlichkeit?
The Home' s Anniversary Celebrations
On November 1, 2015, I attended the Southern Jewish Historical Society's 40th Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee to present a portion of my research, "The Anniversary Celebrations at the Jewish Orphans Home of New Orleans: Engaging and Elevating the Jewish Community." One day each year, the Home opened its doors to the public for a grand anniversary celebration. Originally designed to raise funds, these spectacular social events also featured banquets, performances by the children, and stirring orations from Jewish thought leaders and successful alumni, all of which captured large audiences, sizable donations, and favorable publicity. Far more than successful fundraisers, the anniversary events provided the Home another opportunity to instill its wards with American Jewish values of social justice and patriotism while engaging and elevating the status of New Orleans's Jewish community.
The Home -- A Brief Overview
In 1855, following the country's most brutal epidemic of Yellow Fever, a group of Jewish New Orleanians organized themselves as the Association for the Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans to provide a permanent refuge for the neediest among them. During its first 32-years of operation, the Home for Jewish Widows and Orphans occupied the southwest corner of Jackson Avenue at Chippewa Street, where the original iron fenceposts still stand today.
By 1887, demand exceeded the capacity of the first building, reflecting increasing Eastern European immigration and the admission of children from seven Southern states pursuant to the Home's affiliation with B'nai B'rith beginning a decade earlier. The Association, buoyed by the growing prosperity of New Orleans's Jewish community, erected a new and larger building on gracious tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. Proclaimed a "magnificent monument to Hebrew benevolence," the ornate facade and well-appointed public spaces of the Jewish Orphans Home (as it was called after it stopped admitting widows in 1890) presented a stunning contrast to the humble origins of its young residents and an inspiring symbol of what each could -- and indeed many of them did -- achieve. In addition to a Reform Jewish education, and a progressive system of self-government, the Home sought to provide its wards a robust, secular education. In 1903, the Home founded what is now known as the Isidore Newman School to educate its wards alongside children from some of the City's wealthiest families.
In 1946, in response to changing norms in dependent child care and the advent of Social Security, the Home closed its doors as a residential facility, having fostered and educated a total of nearly 1800 children over 90 years. The JCRS, the Home's successor agency, continues to care for needy Jewish children throughout the Deep South, and is the oldest continuously operating Jewish social services agency in the nation.
Current Project: The History of New Orleans Jewish Orphans Home, 1855-1946
IF YOU OR A FAMILY MEMBER LIVED IN THE JEWISH ORPHANS' (OR CHILDREN'S HOME) OF NEW ORLEANS,
Aerial view of the Jewish Children's Home (as it was known after 1925) which was constructed on St. Charles Avenue in 1887. As reflected by the Home's annual reports, enrollment reached its peak in 1913 with 157 children, of whom 27 were full orphans, 121 were half-orphans, and the remaining 8 had parents who were destitute. The vast majority of the children that year were born in the United States (122), while the rest were born in Russia (20), England (6), Germany (3) , Rumania (2), Hungary (1), Jamaica (1), and India (1). JCRS Photo, 1940.
A few sections of the Home's original iron fence are still standing today at the Jackson Avenue site. Author's photo, 2015.
The original Home for Jewish Widows and Orphans stood at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Chippewa Street from 1856 to 1887. Louisiana State Museum photo.