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New Orleans Federation Leader Takes Katrina’s Lessons to New Job

April 11, 2006
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Eric Stillman is trading one hurricane-battered region for another. As executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Stillman helped guide the city’s Jewish community through Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history.

Now he’s preparing to move to Broward County, Fla., which is still cleaning up from last year’s Hurricane Wilma.

Effective May 1, Stillman, 40, will take over as president and chief executive officer of the United Jewish Community of Broward County, filling a position that has been vacant for two years. In the meantime, a search committee has been appointed to find a replacement for Stillman in New Orleans, where he headed the federation since 2000.

“We are grateful to Eric for his dedicated professional leadership of our federation, especially for the leadership he provided our entire Jewish community through the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans Federation, said in a recent e-mail announcing Stillman’s departure.

Stillman says Katrina taught him “two profound lessons” that he hopes to take to his new job.

“The first is the importance of disaster preparation and planning, which certainly applies for hurricanes as well as potential terrorist attacks,” he told JTA in an interview in New Orleans last week. “The second lesson is being able to communicate with members of the Jewish community, both in times of crisis as well as every day.”

Born in Pontiac, Mich., and raised in Milwaukee, Stillman is no stranger to South Florida. He worked in the campaign department at the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County from 1989 to 1992, and has held executive positions with federations in Washington and Providence, R.I.

Stillman earned a bachelor’s degree from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where he majored in economics and government. He also has two master’s degrees — one in community planning and organization from the University of Maryland, the other in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew University.

Yet nothing in Stillman’s resume could have prepared him for Katrina’s onslaught last Aug. 29.

“My family and I evacuated on Saturday night prior to the hurricane,” he said. The Stillman’s house in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb where many Jews live, suffered wind and water damage.

Like thousands of other Jewish families, Stillman, his wife Jayne and their two sons — Zachary, 11, and Jacob, 10 — rode out the storm in Houston. He says around 62 percent of the city’s 9,500 Jews have returned, though Jewish communal life in New Orleans may never return to its pre-Katrina vibrancy.

Stillman had been in discussions with the Broward federation “prior to Katrina, but withdrew my name from consideration after the hurricane because I felt I needed to focus my energies on restoring the local Jewish community,” he said. “It was only in the past three months that I came to see that my children wouldn’t be able to get a Jewish education here in New Orleans.”

Stillman’s sons been attending the city’s communal Jewish day school, which has not reopened more than seven months after Katrina. When it does reopen, he said, it will no longer offer middle school, and “my wife and I are not prepared to live under such conditions.”

Aside from their vulnerability to hurricanes, the Jewish communities of New Orleans and Broward County could hardly be more different.

For starters, the Jews of New Orleans constitute a small, tight-knit group in which people tend to know each other because their families have lived there for generations. The metro area’s pre-Katrina Jewish population — which includes many children and young adults — represents less than 1 percent of the overall total.

By contrast, Broward’s 270,000 or so Jews comprise more than 15 percent of the county’s population. Unlike in New Orleans, the vast majority of Broward’s Jews were born somewhere else — mainly New York, New Jersey or Latin America — and most of them are elderly.

Stillman also will be operating a much larger institution. The current operating budget of the Broward UJC is $2.9 million, dwarfing the pre-Katrina budget of $722,000 approved by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

Stillman says he’s prepared for the challenge.

“Thankfully, prior to Katrina, the Jewish community had a lot of points of connection. That helped us a lot, so when Katrina hit, we didn’t have to start introducing each other,” he said.

“Certainly, the challenges that I foresee include unifying the Jews of Broward County, because there are so many of them, and because they’re spread out among 30 different municipalities,” he said. “It’s important that no matter where they live, they’ll have a sense of identification with the federation.”

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