BRIEF HISTORY OF CONGREGATION GATES OF PRAYER
Congregation Gates of Prayer is the oldest ongoing congregation in Greater New Orleans, established on January 6, 1850. The founders of the congregation, some of whose descendants are members of the congregation to this day, were primarily German Jews from the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. They were escaping from the terrible conditions that existed during the Franco-Prussian Wars.
At its first meeting, the 26 charter members agreed to rent space for meeting and shortly thereafter purchased the ground for the Joseph Street Cemetery, actively in use to this day. Initially known as “Shaarei Tefiloh,” which means “Gates of Prayer,” the synagogue followed Orthodox ritual. Services were conducted by a Chazzan (Cantor), who also taught the children Hebrew and Torah. Congregants were supportive of one another, nursing each other during times of illness, burying the dead and caring for widows, orphans and the poor.
The first permanent meeting place for the congregation was a house on the corner of St. Mary and Fulton Streets purchased in 1855. In 1859 a lot on the corner of Jackson Ave. and Chippewa St. was selected for building a new structure. Members began collecting red bricks, eventually amassing 300,000. Construction began in 1860, but was interrupted by the Civil War, including the need to hide the materials from Union forces, lest they be confiscated. On June 21, 1865 the synagogue was completed and dedicated. Still standing, the structure has recently been transformed into condominiums, but its early identity can be recognized. A beautiful red glass Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), purchased for the congregation in 1875 continues to hold a prominent place in our current sanctuary.
During the next few decades, the congregation drifted ritually to embrace Reform Jewish practices. Choir and organ were introduced. Translations from Hebrew were read (initially in German, later in English). Friday evening services became more popular, as men and women sat together. With the selection of Rabbi Moise Bergman, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, as rabbi in 1904, the shift became official and the congregation soon affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) in 1908. Membership increased to 150 families, outgrowing the Jackson Ave. building.
In 1914 Dr. Mendel Silber, who was both a rabbi and held an M.D. degree, became Gates of Prayer’s second Reform rabbi. He quickly saw the need for a larger facility and greater proximity to where people were living. On May 21, 1920 we moved into a remodeled former Presbyterian Church on the corner of Napoleon Ave. and Coliseum St. Though embracing the philosophy of Reform Judaism, Gates of Prayer leaned in a more traditional ritual direction on the Reform spectrum, a pattern which continues to this day. The congregation did not fully adopt the Reform prayer book until 1928 and men regularly prayed with their heads covered (atypical of Reform of that time) until 1933.
Rabbi Nathaniel Share began his 40 year service to the congregation in 1934. Known for his compassion and wisdom, Rabbi Share led the congregation through major Jewish and American historical moments: the depression, World War II, the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War era. Under his leadership the congregation grew its educational, social action and social programs with membership reaching 250-300 families. Concern over a possible change in the nature of the neighborhood, competing with two other Reform congregations for potential members and a shifting Jewish population to Jefferson Parish prompted synagogue leaders to propose a move to Metairie. Land was purchased from the Archdiocese of New Orleans on the corner of West Esplanade and Richland Ave. Rabbi Share participated in the ground-breaking ceremony on May 10, 1974, but died suddenly three months later, not quite reaching the new Promised Land.
In September of 1975 a beautiful contemporary building was dedicated with recently elected Rabbi Kenneth Segel leading the worship. This reflected a period of great prosperity in Greater New Orleans. Membership soared to 575 families, as the congregation created the Louise Manheim Nursery School and expanded Religious and Hebrew School. Interfaith activity, including what is now the annual Shared Thanksgiving Service with our neighbor St. Clement of Rome, began. Gates of Prayer established itself as the address for Jewish families in Jefferson Parish.
Rabbi Robert Loewy came to Gates of Prayer in 1984 and has led the congregation during the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Under his guidance we have emphasized education for all ages, interfaith and intra-faith activity, tikun olam social action programs, Israel awareness, involvement of all members including singles, mixed marrieds, LGBTQ, seniors and youth. Gates of Prayer has been at the cutting edge of Reform Jewish life and programming with special links to the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS for our youth. In 1991 the congregation hired its first full time Jewish Educator, a position held since 1997 by Philip Gaethe.
Inspirational and creative worship services have been a feature emphasized over the past three decades. This has included multiple services and programs during the High Holy Days, and a variety of Shabbat services for all ages, with the monthly Shabbat Yeladim children’s experience currently being very popular. Victoria (Tory) Cohen May who began her role as Cantorial Soloist/Musical Director in 1987, initiated Kol Simcha- a volunteer choir, K’lai Simcha- a volunteer band, Friday Night Live- a contemporary music service, along with numerous musical programs. Her voice and musical talent lift and engage congregational worship.
The first major change to the West Esplanade building came in 1987 when a massive tapestry designed by Efrem Weitzman, was added to the front of the sanctuary. In 2000 the structure underwent a major renovation including: the creation of new office and educational wings, a larger front lobby, expansion and reconfiguration of classrooms, creation of a multi-purpose room and adult lounge. Most prominent were changes to the sanctuary designed by David Ascalon with a handicap accessible bima, an enlarged gated ark made of Jerusalem stone, six stained glass windows and comfortable seating.
Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 was both a horrific and a shining moment for the congregation. Flooding in the building resulted in over $1 million in damage. The vast majority of our members suffered from storm damage as well. Synagogue leadership rose to the occasion. With the help of significant donations from Jews all over the United States, we quickly repaired our building and reached out to our members, wherever they were scattered, to provide financial and spiritual support.
A special component of the Katrina story involves Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation located in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, destroyed as a result of the levee breaches and flood waters. Needing a temporary home, Gates of Prayer opened its doors to their members in January of 2006, creating the oddity of an Orthodox service taking place in a Reform congregation. This continued until June of 2012 when they moved into their new building on land purchased from Gates of Prayer, situated adjacent to our building, with our playground in between. The two congregations embarked on unique ways to cooperate and share, particularly with joint education and social action programs. This unique symbiosis received national recognition.
Rooted in our history, Congregation Gates of Prayer looks forward to tomorrow.
“עבדו את יי בשמחה
- Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha- Serve/Worship God with joy” is the Psalm verse found on our ark gates. It reflects an attitude which permeates all that we do. Congregation Gates of Prayer embraces its past, while engaging its future.