A slim rare volume I acquired this week was a thrilling find for me, a remnant of an important but long forgotten community in American Jewish History. Printed in 1860, it is titled: Constitution and by-laws of the Hebrew Congregation of the “Dispersed of Judah” and it was printed by Clark & Brisbin Printers, New Orleans. In the early days of New Orleans settlement by European explorers, the first Jews to arrive in Louisiana were nearly all Sephardic Jews, generally descendants of Spanish & Portuguese Jews. They founded the very first synagogue in the country outside the original Thirteen Colonies, Shangarai Chasset (Shaarei Chesed) in 1827. By 1846, the Jewish population had become more French and German (Ashkenazi) because of the migration of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine. As a result, a Sephardic businessman, Gershom Kursheedt, convinced Judah Touro to establish a new Sephardic synagogue which he did on the corner of Bourbon St. and Canal St in New Orleans. The new congregation was called Nefutsoth Judah, Dispersed of Judah.
Judah Touro (June 16, 1775 – January 18, 1854) was an American businessman and philanthropist. When Touro died in 1854, in his will, he bequeathed $500,000 to institutions around the country – more than half of which went to non-Jewish causes. (As a percentage of GDP, these gifts would approximate $2 billion today.) The will includes Touro Synagogue and Touro Infirmary; various benevolent societies and hospitals; orphanages, almshouses, and asylums; libraries and schools; and relief for Jews overseas. According to one contemporary observer, “He gave ten times more than any Christian in the city to aid the cause of Christians in the land of Judaea.”
He also gave thousands of dollars each to existing 23 Jewish congregations in 14 states – especially the Newport, RI synagogue, where he endowed the cemetery in which he was laid to rest, the final surviving member of the Touro family line. “The last of his name,” reads his tombstone, “he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever.”
This constitution published in 1860 contains a portrait of Touro facing the title page, him being the namesake of the synagogue. The rabbi at the time, was James Koppel Gutheim, a great Jewish leader forever tainted though by his staunch Confederate loyalty. During 1860, he appears to have encountered some controversy with regard to his position as the Acting President of Touro Monument Association. Gutheim advocated for the construction of a statue memorializing Judah Touro, whose philanthropic giving was incomparable. The community halted Gutheim’s efforts when a traveler, Israel Joseph Benjamin, present at a communal meeting regarding the statue, challenged the decision to erect the memorial statue, as it violated traditional Jewish Law. In 1863, during the Civil War, he got himself in a fix when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union after New Orleans was recaptured. He fled New Orleans, and then served as rabbi to Jewish congregations in Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. Gutheim returned to New Orleans after the Civil War, to serve as Shangarai Chasset’s rabbi, but left to serve in New York City’s Temple Emanuel in 1868. In 1872 he once again returned to New Orleans to become minister of the New Orleans Temple Sinai, where he preached until his death. He died in New Orleans.
The constitution of the synagogues lists a long list of rules by which the synagogue must be run and members must uphold. Of note is the inclusion of a Shohet as someone hired by the synagogue to cater to the member’s needs. Article II states, the prayer and ceremonies shall forever be read and performed according to the manner and customs of the Portuguese Jews, according to Minhag Sephardim. Article V notes, if (members) have been baptized in, or converted to any other faith, they shall have made a public avowal of atonement for such act, according to our laws, and any member who shall hereafter marry in contravention to the laws of the Jews, shall forfeit all the rights and privileges of membership. By 1881, the Portuguese community in New Orleans declined to the point where it was forced to merge with Cong. Shaare Cheded, under the name of The Gates of Mercy of the Dispersed of Judah. Eventually the congregation was called Touro Synagogue in honor of their mutual benefactor, but the name wasn’t changed until 1937. Despite the constitutions insistence on Jewish Law being followed, eventually the synagogue succumbed to the changing tides in American Jewry and joined the reform movement.