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Our History

Congregation Gates of Prayer is the oldest ongoing congregation in Greater New Orleans, established on January 6, 1850.

The congregation's founders, some of whose descendants remain members of our community 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. Shortly after that, they purchased the ground for the Joseph Street Cemetery, which is actively in use today.

Initially known as “Shaarei Tefiloh,” which means “Gates of Prayer,” the synagogue followed Orthodox ritual. A Chazzan (Cantor) conducted services and taught the children Hebrew and Torah. Congregants supported one another, nursing each other during 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, members selected a lot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Chippewa Street to build a new structure. Members began collecting red bricks, eventually amassing 300,000. Construction started in 1860 but was interrupted by the Civil War. Members hid the materials from Union Forces to keep them from being confiscated.

On June 21, 1865, the synagogue was completed and dedicated. Still standing, developers transformed the structure into condominiums, but you can still recognize its early identity. A beautiful red glass Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), purchased for the congregation in 1875, holds a prominent place in our current sanctuary.

During the next few decades, the congregation drifted ritually to embrace Reform Jewish practices. A choir and organ were introduced. Translations from Hebrew were read (initially in German, later in English). And Friday evening services became more popular as men and women sat together. Though embracing the philosophy of Reform Judaism, Gates of Prayer leaned in a more traditional ritual direction on the Reform spectrum. The congregation did not fully adopt the Reform prayer book until 1928, and men regularly prayed with their heads covered (atypical of Reform at that time) until 1933.

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 Avenue building.

In 1914 Dr. Mendel Silber, a rabbi who also held an M.D. degree, became Gates of Prayer's second Reform rabbi. He quickly saw the need for a larger facility and closer proximity to where people were living. On May 21, 1920, we moved into a remodeled former Presbyterian Church on the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Coliseum Streets.
Rabbi Nathaniel Share began his 40-year service to the congregation in 1934. Known for his compassion and wisdom, Rabbi Share led the community through significant Jewish and American historical moments: the depression, World War II, the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War era.

Under his leadership, the congregation grew its educational, social action, and social programs, with membership reaching 250-300 families. Concern over 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.

The congregation purchased land from the Archdiocese of New Orleans on the corner of West Esplanade and Richland Avenue. 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. It was a period of great prosperity in Greater New Orleans. Membership soared to 575 families, and the congregation created the Louise Manheim Nursery School and expanded its 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.

In 1984, Rabbi Robert Loewy came to Gates of Prayer. He led the congregation during the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Under his guidance, the congregation 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.

The first significant change to the West Esplanade building came in 1987 when the congregation added a massive tapestry, designed by Efrem Weitzman, to the front of the sanctuary. In 2000 the structure underwent a significant renovation, including new office and educational wings, a larger front lobby, the expansion and reconfiguration of classrooms, and the creation of a multi-purpose room and adult lounge. In addition, David Ascalon also designed notable changes to the sanctuary, including a handicap-accessible bima, an enlarged gated ark made of Jerusalem stone, six stained-glass windows, and comfortable seating.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina was both a horrific and a shining moment for the congregation. Flooding in the building resulted in over $1 million in damage, and the 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. We reached out to our members, wherever they were scattered, to provide financial and spiritual support.

A unique component of the Katrina story involves Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation located in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. Levee breaches and floodwaters destroyed Congregation Beth Israel, and it needed a temporary home. In January 2006, Congregation Gates of Prayer opened its doors to Beth Israel members, creating the oddity of an Orthodox service taking place in a Reform congregation. In June 2012, Beth Israel moved into their new building on land purchased from Congregation 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.

In 1987, Victoria (Tory) Cohen May joined Congregation Gates of Prayer as its Cantorial Soloist/Musical Director. She initiated Kol Simcha (a volunteer choir), K'lai Simcha (a volunteer band), and Friday Night Live (contemporary music service, along with numerous musical programs).

When Tory retired in 2020, Tulane Musical Theatre graduate, Jordan Lawrence, took over the role. As the congregation's newest Cantorial Soloist, she brings enhanced meaning to the prayers sung at each Shabbat with her energy and warmth. Jordan also directs the choir, challenging its members to leave their comfort zone and let their voices be heard. Her Jewish camp and day school background shines through, especially when teaching music to the congregation's preschool children. Jordan also serves as the Director of Family Engagement, creating exciting and engaging programs for members of all ages. 

The congregation hired its first full-time Jewish Educator in 1991, a position Philip Gaethe has held since 1997. Under his stewardship, the Rabbi Nathaniel Share Religious School of Congregation Gates of Prayer was awarded Accreditation by the Association of Reform Jewish Educators in 2016. In 2019, Phil oversaw the evolution from a traditional Religious School model into a new paradigm, called J-FLEx or Jewish Fun Learning Experiences. This camp-like model of Jewish education was very well received, resulting in a significant increase in participation in the temple's education program.  In 2005, Phil was awarded the designation of R.J.E. (Reform Jewish Educator) by the Reform Jewish Educator Title Granting Commission. In 2022, he received the Marion B. Steeg Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, highlighting Jewish education's value in its many varieties in the Greater New Orleans Community. 

In June 2018, Rabbi David Gerber succeeded Rabbi Loewy as the congregation's fifth senior rabbi. He arrived at Congregation Gates of Prayer with his wife, Lauren, and his children, Paige and Tessa. Having served as an Associate Rabbi in Maple Glen, PA, he was hired in part because of his reputation for innovation and community building. Under Rabbi Gerber's leadership, the congregation has been positioned for membership growth and continued financial stability. Worship services provide a warm, spiritual experience, and learning opportunities are ever-expanding. He has become known as the “Official Rabbi of the Saints” and is the founder of GatesFest, a music festival that brings in world-class artists to CGoP. 

In addition to serving our CGoP Community, Rabbi Gerber teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Loyola University, serves on the Israel Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and volunteers with the temple's partner organizations Jacobs Camp and the Jewish Community Day School. 

Rabbi Erdheim joined the Gates of Prayer community in 2017 as a rabbinic intern. Upon her ordination in 2019, she joined the Gates of Prayer clergy team full time. Rabbi Erdheim oversees Tribe programming and  leads Tzedek, Congregation Gates of Prayer's social justice and social action committee. She also spends her summer at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp where she directs the Staff-in-Training Program. 

Congregation Gates of Prayer has been at the cutting edge of Reform Jewish life and programming and has emphasized inspirational and creative worship services over the past three decades, including multiple services and programs during the High Holy Days, various Shabbat services for all ages, and special links to the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica and M.S. for our youth.

Today, our congregation blends the traditional Hebrew of our siddur with the contemporary melodies that bring our words to life.

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

This Psalm verse is found on our ark gates. It reflects an attitude that permeates all that we do. Congregation Gates of Prayer embraces its past while engaging its future.

Sun, November 28 2021 24 Kislev 5782