NEW ORLEANS, U.S. port and commercial center near the mouth of the Misxsissippi River in the State of
. Before Hurricane Katrina struck the city on August 29, 2005, had an estimated population of approximately 1,200,000, of which about 12,000 were Jewish. As of January 2006, the future of the city, and its Jewish population remained uncertain. All but one of its major synagogues had been reopened, but the flood damage had wiped out large residential areas.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, who, six years later enacted The Code Noir, or Black Code, which regulated the slave population, but also contained a clause expelling Jews from the territory. There are no records of transient Jewish traders until the arrival of Isaac Rodrigues Monsanto in 1757. He and his family were Dutch Sephardic Jews who had settled in Curaçao until they braved the Code Noir to settle in New Orleans. The French, in their usual lax fashion, ignored the laws and allowed them to prosper, until the cession of Louisiana to Spain following the French and Indian War. In 1769, the Spanish governor Don Alejandro O'Reilly expelled the Monsanto family because they were Jewish, and confiscated their money and property. They fled to Pensacola, then an English territory, but soon were allowed to return minus their possessions.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the dissolution of the Code Noir, New Orleans became more attractive to Jewish pioneers.
, later a wealthy merchant and philanthropist, arrived in 1802, and Ezekiel Salomon, son of the American Revolution patriot Haym
, was a governor of the United States Bank in New Orleans from 1816 to 1821. Two more Jews who later achieved high position settled in the city in 1828:
Judah P. *Benjamin
, later Secretary of State of the Confederacy, and his cousin, Henry M. Hyams, later lieutenant governor of Louisiana. In the 1830s Gershom Kursheedt, who became the first communal leader, arrived in New Orleans; his nephew, Edwin Isaac Kursheedt, was a colonel in the Washington Artillery, the historic New Orleans regiment.
Shaarei Chessed, the first synagogue, was chartered in 1828. In 1848 James C. Gutheim of Cincinnati was invited to serve as rabbi. The Portuguese Congregation, Nefutzoth Yehudah, was founded in 1845. Temple Sinai, the first Reform congregation, founded in 1870, recalled Rabbi Gutheim to New Orleans from Temple Emanu-El in New York, to be its first rabbi. The first two congregations merged in 1881 to become what later was called Touro synagogue, which was reformed by 1892. Congregation Gates of Prayer, organized in 1850, was Reform by the turn of the century. The Reform congregations have the largest number of members, followed by Shir Chadash, New Orleans's only Conservative congregation, which resulted from the merger of Tikvat Shalom and Chevra Tehillim. Congregation Beth Israel (1904), and Agudas
Achim Anshe Sfard (1896) remain the only Orthodox synagogues.
Beth Israel's Synagogue, located near Lake Pontchar-train, was inundated with over ten feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.
The Hebrew Benevolent Association, which funded many Jewish organizations, was founded in 1844. Touro Infirmary, still serving New Orleans, was founded by Judah Touro in 1852. The Jewish Widows and Orphans Home, later the Jewish Orphans and now Jewish Regional Services, was founded in 1856, and the Young Mens' Hebrew Association was founded in 1891. In 1913, 18 separate Jewish welfare and charity organizations merged to form the forerunner of the Jewish Welfare Federation.
Architects of the mid-19th century New Orleans were businessmen like Isidore Newman, Leon Godchaux, and Julius Weis, who led by example in creating and supporting Jewish institutions.
Among some of the prominent Jews of New Orleans in the late 19th and 20th centuries were the attorney Monte M. Lemann; Isaac Delgado, who gave the city its art museum;
, president of the United Fruit Company; Captain Neville Levy, chairman of the Mississippi River Bridge Commission; Percival Stern, benefactor of Tulane and Loyola universities, Newman School, and the Touro Infirmary; Mr. and Mrs. Edgar B. Stern, who supported many institutions and schools as did Malcolm Woldenberg, Steven Goldring, and Sydney J. Besthoff III, whose extensive sculpture collection now graces the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jews have served as presidents and board members of practically all cultural, civic, and social-welfare agencies. Originally, because of its unhealthy climate and poor economy, New Orleans received little of the Eastern European Jewish immigration to America, although a small but vibrant group of Eastern European Jews settled in the Dryades Street neighborhood, with its own kosher markets, Orthodox synagogues, and small shopkeepers. In 2005 that neighborhood had, like the lower east side of New York, completely lost its Jewish flavor, and, like most of America, New Orleans Jews have bonded into a single community, forgetting their origins. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina they faced a challenge which exceeded even the Civil War and Reconstruction difficulties, as they sought to return to their city, their jobs, their flooded homes, and their synagogues.