New Name, New Project, New Orleans


Disaster relief experts know the story. In the wake of a catastrophe like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a stricken city or town will be deluged with money, aid and attention that recedes all too soon when public sympathy weakens or is drawn elsewhere. Of course, there are exceptions.

Like movie star Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right nonprofit is rebuilding the city’s devastated Ninth Ward, a New York-based Jewish organization also has made a commitment to the Crescent City’s recovery.

And like New Orleans itself, that organization is inaugurating a new era in its history; until April 2, the group was known as the “Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice,” a mouthful that was the result of a merger between the two groups.

Now it’s “Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice,” and the first project under its new name is the closing of a loan that will help build a health clinic in an underserved New Orleans neighborhood.

Alan van Capelle, the group’s new CEO, says the name evokes an abolitionist saying popularized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“There are lots of ways to bend the arc,” said van Capelle, who is Jewish and previously led the Empire State Pride Agenda. He has years of experience as a labor organizer. “One of those tactics is community investment.”

Bend the Arc, the country’s largest Jewish social justice organization working on domestic issues, operates several programs including service-learning trips, leadership training and consciousness-raising campaigns on such topics as the rights of domestic and hotel workers. Headquartered in New York, it has offices in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Among its more unusual programs are three investment funds, including an interfaith effort that is loaning $300,000 to a New Orleans clinic; it will cost $600,000 to build the 4,319-square-foot facility. Those funds, with assets totaling about $13 million, consist of investments, which Bend the Arc and its partners invest in community development projects like the clinic. The projects return the money to the fund, according to the terms of the loan, and the fund returns the money to the investors, often with interest.

The fund that is supporting the New Orleans clinic, called the Isaiah Fund, is operated by Bend the Arc but is also supported by Baptists, Catholics and Mennonites for the purposes of funding recovery efforts in New Orleans. The Isaiah Fund has already loaned $1.2 million for New Orleans recovery efforts.

Located at the intersection of five New Orleans neighborhoods, the clinic will serve 28,000 people, almost a third of whom use an emergency room for all their medical care. Primary care physicians from Tulane University’s Medical Center will staff this clinic, providing checkups and treatment for illness.

“It’s a relatively limited investment that is going to have an extraordinary impact,” said van Capelle. “These people will get medical care with dignity.”