Early New Orleans
It has generally been assumed that the Louisiana Code Noir, or Black Code, promulgated in Paris in 1724 and excluding settlement by Jews and the practice of any religion other than Catholicism in the French colony of Louisiana, discouraged the immigration of Jews to the area.
Although there were transient Jews in the colony, the first recorded settler was Isaac Rodriguez Monsanto, a Dutch-born merchant who had taken his brothers and sisters to Curaçao before moving his headquarters to New Orleans in 1757. Between 1757 and 1769 Monsanto conducted successful business operations with settlers and merchants throughout Louisiana, the Illinois country, Atlantic and Caribbean ports, and Europe. In 1769, when Monsanto and his family and associates were expelled from New Orleans under the rigorous Spanish rule of Governor Alejandro O'Reilly, who invoked the first provision of the Code Noir for their expulsion, the Monsantos took refuge in British West Florida, but all gradually filtered back into Spanish Louisiana. The Monsantos, born Jewish, all participated in the rituals of the Protestant and Catholic churches without baptism.
Judah Touro arrived in New Orleans from Boston in late 1801 or early 1802 and became, through diligence and his simple manner of living, a wealthy man. He was indifferent to Judaism until late in life, when he was persuaded by Gershom Kursheedt, the first truly religious Jew in the city, to build a synagogue for the second New Orleans congregation, Nefutzoth Yehudah, or Dispersed of Judah, organized in 1845. Other early settlers were equally unconcerned about the preservation of Jewish identity.
Of the approximately 15 Jews who were in New Orleans in January 1815, when the battle for the city between American forces, led by General Andrew Jackson, and the British took place, at least ten and possibly 11 had some part in the action. Touro suffered a near-fatal wound. Of these 15, seven remained bachelors, seven intermarried, and one, Manis Jacobs, married a Christian woman after his first (Jewish) wife died. It was Manis Jacobs who became the first president of Shaarei Chassed or Gates of Mercy (1827), the first congregation in Louisiana and indeed anywhere in the Mississippi Valley south of Cincinnati. This congregation, Sephardi at the outset, later became Ashkenazi as increasing numbers of Jews arrived in the town from the German-speaking lands. But Jewish religious life did not prosper in New Orleans. The wealthiest men did not support any of the three congregations in existence by 1850. (Gates of Prayer Congregation was established in the Lafayette suburb of New Orleans in January of that year.) Touro's building of a synagogue did not inspire others to do likewise. Intermarriage continued apace in New Orleans, perhaps more than in any major city in the United States.
German Jews at the port of New Orleans fanned out from that city into more rural areas and became peddlers and artisans. Significant numbers of Jews were country merchants and traders in small Louisiana towns before the Civil War. They established benevolent societies, cemeteries, or congregations in Alexandria (1854), Donaldsonville (1856), Baton Rouge (1858), and Monroe (1861). But the most significant Jewish institution in Louisiana was the Association for the Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans of New Orleans (1854), one of the earliest agencies of its kind in the United States. Made necessary by frequent epidemics of yellow fever and cholera in the New Orleans area, this association was supported from its inception by assimilated Jews who demonstrated no other concern with their Jewish identity. The free-wheeling atmosphere of the state, dominated by New Orleans, encouraged the full participation and integration of Jews; there was then little anti-Jewish prejudice, which seems to have gained momentum only in the late 19th century. Among Louisiana's notable assimilated Jews were U.S. Senator Judah P. Benjamin (1853–61); Henry M. Hyams, Benjamin's cousin, lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1859; and Dr. Edwin Warren Moise, speaker of the Louisiana legislature at the same time and later state attorney general. It was apparently no accident that each of these men intermarried. In 1872, the first Rex, King of Carnival, was Louis J. Salomon, a great-grandson of Haym Salomon , the well-known Revolutionary War patriot.
The Civil War and After
More than 200 Louisiana Jews are known by name to have served in the Confederate forces, but the true number is probably three times that large. Three of these men, S.M. Hymans, Edwin I. Kursheedt, and Leon R. Marks, achieved the rank of colonel. Benjamin Franklin Jonas, served as a private; he became the second Louisiana Jew to serve in the U.S. Senate
The distinctive leader of the Jews of New Orleans after the Civil War was Rabbi James K. Gutheim , who before the war served as Reverend at Dispersed of Judah then moved to Gates of Mercy soon after the war's end. He encouraged the growing Reform movement within the congregation, but, when proposed reforms in the liturgy he recommended in 1868 caused an uproar, he accepted the position of Reader at Temple Emanuel in New York City. He returned to New Orleans four years later in response to the creation of Temple Sinai, a new Reform congregation organized by his followers from Gates of Mercy.
Rabbi Isaac Leucht, who followed Gutheim to the pulpit at Shaarei Chassed, also became the rabbi when Gates of Mercy and Dispersed of Judah amalgamated in 1881. Leucht began calling the merged congregation Touro Synagogue, in memory of the philanthropist whose largesse assisted both congregations in their formative years. He assisted in relief work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, as well as in civic work; and he was a bridge to the gentile community, serving as president of the Red Cross Society and a member of the State Board of Education.
In 1882 the Hebrew Foreign Mission Society of New Orleans, in conjunction with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, sponsored an agricultural colony of Russian Jews at Sicily Island in Catahoula Parish. But the project failed when the Mississippi River overflowed and flooded the entire area that year.
Jewish Life in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Jewish merchants and traders organized communities throughout the state. The largest, except for New Orleans, was Shreveport, where a synagogue, Har El, was founded in 1859 and an Orthodox congregation was organized in 1892. One of the marks of the development of intolerance was a local ordinance (1873) prohibiting Jews from opening their stores on Sunday. Zionist, B'nai B'rith, and other communal organizations were formed, and in 1914 the Reform temple was dedicated. A Shreveport attorney, Sidney Herold, in 1915 successfully persuaded the State Court of Appeals to prohibit the reading of the Bible in public schools.
Baton Rouge, the state capital, had Jewish settlers in the early 19th century, but not until 1868 was their number sufficient to form the small congregation which became B'nai Israel in 1879. In Alexandria a Young Men's Hebrew Association was organized in 1882, and the city had Reform and Orthodox synagogues. Jewish communities appeared in Morgan City in 1875, in Opelousas in 1877, and in Lake Charles in 1895. In Bogalusa, an Orthodox congregation was organized in 1925. Communities also functioned in Plaquemine (1856–1932), St. Francisville (1877–1905), and Bastrop (1877–1923). Bastrop and other small communities are served by the United Jewish Charities of Northeast Louisiana, organized in 1938 in Monroe. From 1915 to 1933 Mendel Silber of New Orleans ministered to congregations in New Iberia, Morgan City, and Plaquemine.
In the 20th century movement from smaller to larger communities occurred among Louisiana Jews. Moreover, the total population of Louisiana Jewry declined somewhat after 1940, when there were about 16,000 Jews in the state. But despite the continuing small proportion of Jews in the state population, many Louisiana Jews have attained statewide or national prominence, including the 19th-century philanthropist Isidore Newman ; civic leader Julius Weis; Isaac Delgado, a charter member of the Louisiana Sugar Exchange who contributed to the art museum and Charity Hospital memorial building; the actress Adah Isaacs Menken ; U.S. congressman Adolph Meier (1891–1908); and state legislators George Joel Ginsberg (1928–32), who sought the impeachment of Governor Huey P. Long before the State Senate in 1929, and Norman Bauer, speaker of the House of Representatives in 1942. Henry A. Lazarus was a member of the state Supreme Court (1880) and Emile Godchaux (1909–18), Max Dinkelspiel (1919–24), and I.D. Moor served on the state Court of Appeals. Alexandria, Monroe, Crowley, Donaldsonville, and Morgan City have elected Jewish mayors, and many Jews have served as school board members and presidents. Jews have prospered financially in Louisiana, and the Jewish professional and managerial classes have grown significantly since 1940.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the general population of Greater New Orleans has gone from approximately one million to about half that number. In Orleans Parish the population has fallen from 475,000 to less than 100,000. While most of the synagogues received some repairable damage, Congregation Beth Israel, the only congregation in the city that offered twice daily services before the hurricane, was inundated with ten feet of water. All of their Torahs were damaged and had to be buried. The members of the Jewish community have scattered to Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and points in between. When and whether they will return remains to be seen.
As of 2017, Louisiana's Jewish population was approximately 13,900 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. L. Shpall, Jews in Louisiana (1936); B. Kaplan, Eternal Stranger (1957), 39–43; B. Lemann, Lemann Family of Louisiana (1965); B. Korn, Early Jews of New Orleans (1969); Louisiana Historical Records Survey, Inventory of Jewish Congregations and Organizations (1941); A.P. Nasatir and L. Shpall, in: AJHSQ, 53:1 (1963), 3–43.