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 Jewish temple 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. Little by little, hardworking Southern Jews settled into a welcoming environment. 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, reveling in the value of religious freedom promised by the American Constitution.
Touro Synagogue’s congregation is the result of a union between two original congregations, Congregation Gates of Mercy and Congregation Dispersed of Judah. Shangarai-Chasset (Congregation Gates of Mercy) was founded in 1828 thanks to the efforts of a proactive visitor, Jacob Solis, who fulfilled the needs of the Jewish community by creating a space of worship during 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, leading some Portuguese members, preferring the Sephardic tradition, 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 recovering from the loss of many lives to 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 historic Newport congregation, regarded as America’s Oldest Synagogue. In addition to being a benefactor of many Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant 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 at the ripe age of 29. The synagogue was completed in 1908 and dedicated on January 1, 1909. Our 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; Rabbi David Goldstein, 1978-2005; Rabbi Andrew Busch, 2005-2008; Rabbi Alexis Berk, 2008-present.
Rabbi Leucht is remembered for helping bring about the merger of the two original synagogues. Rabbi Leipziger exercised tremendous 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 other public spheres.
Rabbi David Goldstein proudly accepted the position as Touro Synagogue’s rabbi in 1978. Under his leadership the congregation’s endowment grew dramatically. As a result, a 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. This magnificent addition 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 a native New Orleanian, was commissioned to design the stained glass windows for the chapel. While much of her work can be found in museums around the country, her original watercolor piece remains in the Touro collection. 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 helping foster closer relations between the Jewish and African-American communities of 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 north, 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 have responded with open arms to their 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.
Rabbi Todd Silverman joined our clergy team in 2015 – Touro’s first ever Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning. He brings a joyful spirit, a curious mind, and a warm approach to all ages — as he connects with all members of the community to bring Judaism alive in creative learning experiences and vibrant relationships.
The Touro Congregation has always been blessed by its cantors, who have led worship, shaped liturgy, and inspired congregants both children young and old. Especially notable have been the contributions of Cantor Steven Dubov, Cantor Jordan Franzel, Cantor Seth Warner, Cantor Billy Tiep, Cantor Jason Kaufman, Cantor Jamie Marx, and Cantor David Mintz. Each one helped further develop our musical program by enhancing our congregational offerings through our choir, Jazz Fest Shabbat Worship, educational programs, and community leadership.