Touro Synagogue History
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The History of our Congregation
Our Story Begins in 1828, a mere 25 years after the Louisiana Purchase, when the founders of what would eventually become Touro Synagogue started the first synagogue outside of the 13 original colonies and the sixth oldest synagogue in the country.
According to the Code Noire (1724) Jews should have been excluded from the French territory of Louisiana. But the business acumen of Jewish merchants proved more important to the financial future of New Orleans than upholding the rules of the French government. So it was that the prohibitions against Jews were inconsistently enforced. When President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the 1803 Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, and Louisiana came under American jurisdiction, Jews acquired the right to freely inhabit what would become the 18th state in the Union, thereby realizing the value of religious freedom that would later become part of the American Constitution.
Touro Synagogue’s congregation is the result of a re-merger between two original congregations, Congregation Gates of Mercy and Congregation Dispersed of Judah. Shanarai-Chasset (Congregation Gates of Mercy) was founded in 1828 thanks to the efforts of Jacob Solis, a visitor to New Orleans who was appalled at the lack of a synagogue in which to worship for the High Holy Days. Their first synagogue was located on North Rampart Street, between St. Louis and Conti Streets, west of the French Quarter. Gates of Mercy followed the Ashkenazic rituals, but some Portuguese members, preferring the Sephardic rituals, separated and formed Nefutzoth Yehudah (Congregation Dispersed of Judah) in 1846. Congregation Dispersed of Judah moved into the renovated Christ Church building at the corner of Bourbon and Canal Streets in 1846.
On February 6, 1881, these two congregations reunited and moved into a building on Carondelet Street. The merger strengthened the Jewish community in New Orleans at a time when both congregations were struggling economically and were recovering from the loss of many lives from the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. The new congregation eventually took the name Touro Synagogue after the benefactor of both communities, merchant-philanthropist Judah Touro.
Judah Touro had lived in New Orleans since 1801, coming originally from Rhode Island where his father was the leader of the Newport congregation. In addition to being a benefactor of many Catholic, Protestant and Jewish charities, Judah Touro was a hero in the War of 1812, co-builder of the Bunker Hill Monument, founder of the First Free Public Library in America, and founder of Touro Infirmary and the Touro Home for the Aged.
Touro Synagogue joined the Reform movement in 1891 and has been a leader in the Reform movement ever since. The current sanctuary building was designed by a well‐known local architect Emile Weil, who won the congregation’s design competition, and was dedicated on January 1, 1909. The sanctuary holds a magnificent Aron Kodesh, given to Congregation Dispersed of Judah in 1847 by Judah Touro.
Rabbi Isaac Leucht, 1881-1914; Rabbi Emil Leipziger, 1914-1947; Rabbi Leo A. Bergman, 1948-1976; and Rabbi David Goldstein, 1978-2005.
Rabbi Leucht is remembered for helping to bring about the merger of the two original synagogues. Rabbi Leipziger exercised tremendous community leadership in organizing the Community Chest and other endeavors. Rabbi Bergman was instrumental in bringing about the greatest synagogue growth up to that point. Under Bergman’s leadership Ralph Slifkin was invited to serve as the cantorial soloist, the auditorium was expanded, and the Religious School became the largest in the city. Rabbi Bergman’s voice was one of strength during the climactic days of racial integration in schools and public places.
Rabbi David Goldstein accepted the position as Touro Synagogue’s rabbi in 1978. Under his leadership the congregation’s endowment grew dramatically, and a complete, full-time, professional staff was put in place for the first time: Rabbi, Cantor, Educator and Executive Director. Rabbi Goldstein inspired two major building projects. The first was the Norman Synagogue House which was built in 1989 and contains the Forgotston Chapel, the Shushan Assembly, the Bowsky Gardens, the Grant-Meyer Garden Pavilion, the Jacobs Social Hall and the Good Family Foyer. Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer(1912 – 1997) an Abstract Expressionist artist and New Orleans native, was commissioned to design the stained glass windows for the chapel. Her original watercolor hangs in the Jacobs Social Hall. The second project involved the re-designing of the administrative offices and the Mautner Learning Center. Rabbi Goldstein was also instrumental in developing the Tulane University Jewish Studies Program and helped to foster closer relations between the Jewish and African-American communities in New Orleans.
Rabbi Andrew Busch became Touro Synagogue’s rabbi in July 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, thus anointing Rabbi Busch’s brief tenure with us. Rabbi Busch strove valiantly to serve the needs of his newly dispersed congregation in the wake of one of the nation’s largest natural disasters, gathering together members in Houston and offering support and encouragement. Rabbi Busch led his first High Holy Day service at Touro Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah 2005, and provided New Orleans with its very first Jewish service following the storm. Rabbi Busch continued to lead us as we slowly returned to New Orleans to pick up the pieces of our lives. When family concerns pulled him back to the northern states, Rabbi Busch’s replacement was sought. And again Touro was blessed.
Rabbi Alexis Berk accepted the pulpit at Touro Synagogue in July 2008. Although raised in rural Massachusetts, Rabbi Berk is a southerner at heart. She explains, “The complexity and texture of the New Orleans landscape illuminates the elemental beauty of the Touro community. The fact that Touro is a 180-year-old synagogue belies its strong desire for innovation and growth. The professional team and congregational leaders embody passion for this community – within the walls of the congregation and beyond. Resilience, inter- connectedness, and strength are the core of this distinctive place.”
Touro Synagogue, and the larger Jewish community in New Orleans, has responded with open arms to its first senior, female rabbi. Rabbi Berk brings a fresh perspective, a keen intellect, a pervasive sense of humor, and a compassionate heart to her role as the spiritual leader of Touro’s congregation. Her energetic leadership heralds a new and exciting chapter in Touro’s history.
The Touro Congregation has always been blessed by its cantors, who have led worship, shaped liturgy, and taught and inspired both children and adults. Especially notable have been the contributions of Cantor Steven Dubov, z”l, Cantor Jordan Franzel, Cantor Seth Warner, Cantor Billy Tiep, and Cantor Jason Kaufman. Each one helped further develop our musical program and enhanced our congregational offerings through our choir, Jazz Fest Shabbat Worship, educational program, and daily congregational life. Our new cantor, Cantor Jamie Marx is sure to add his own unique flavor to our services and programming. We welcome him, his wife Anna, and young daughter Ellie to New Orleans and to Touro Synagogue.
The History of Touro Synagogue’s Holocaust Scroll
Read the story of our Czechoslovakian Holocaust Scroll’s journey from Prague, to London, to New Orleans.