Touro Synagogue traces its roots to Gates of Mercy, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in America beyond the original thirteen colonies. While its roots stretch back to1828, Touro Synagogue in its modern form was founded in 1881 with the merger of two congregations, Gates of Mercy (Shanarai Chasset, var. Shangarai-Chassed) and Dispersed of Judah (Nefusoth Yehudah).
Congregation Gates of Mercy was founded in 1828 as a Sephardic congregation but soon change to Askenazic as the congregants were mostly French and German Jewish settlers. The original congregation was located in a rented building at the corner of St. Louis and Franklin streets.The synagogue moved to a new home on North Rampart Street between St. Louis and Conti Streets in 1843 in a building in disrepair. After a gift of money from Judah Touro, a new building was erected on the site and dedicated in 1851. Gates of Mercy purchased land for a cemetery also in 1828 on Jackson Ave. In 1860, Gates of Mercy purchase property on Elysian Fields at Pelopidas. In 1872, after the founding of Temple Sinai, this property was sold to the Temple which gave all rights to the Hebrew Cemetery Association.
Congregation Dispersed of Judah was founded in 1847 after Gershon Kersheedt persuaded Judah Touro, whose roots were Sephardic, to purchase the old Christ Church buiding on Canal Street corner of Bourbon. It was named after its benefactor, Judah Touro, formerly of Newport, Rhode Island, who had earlier supported Gates of Mercy. Touro, a recluse, requested a private pre-dedicated which he attended, but not the public dedication of the synagogue in his name. He lived on the property in what formerly was the rectory. After Touro's death in 1854, the congregation, which had outgrown the original building, used the money left them by Touro to build a new synagogue on Carondelet street. Dispersed of Judah's cemetery is on Canal St. Today, it is also owned and managed by Hebrew Rest Cemetery Association.
In 1881 the two congregations merged and adopted the name Hebrew Congregation Gates of Mercy of the Dispersed of Judah (Shanarai-Chasset Nefutzot Yehuda). The two congregations occupied the Carondelet synagogue. The congregation hired a new Rabbi, Issac Leucht, as their spiritual leader (see Manuscripts Collection 853, Rabbi Isaac L. Leucht papers). Leucht had been the Torah reader at Gates of Mercy. At his recommendation, the congregation began to call itself Touro Synagogue in to honor the benefactor of both preceding congregations, although the official change did not take place until 1937.
Although Touro Synagogue had attempted to become more reform as early as 1868 at the urging of then Rabbi James K. Gutheim, it officially became a reform congregation in 1890s. The Womens League [later Sisterhood] was formed in 1895. Touro moved to its current location on St. Charles Avenue in 1909. The new Synagogue, designed by Emile Weil, had an organ, a true sign of complete conversion to Reform Judaism. Inside the neo-Byzantine structure the pillars of the Ark of the Covenant made of cedar from Lebanon were moved from the original Dispersed of Judah synagogue on Canal Street to Carondelet street and finally to St. Charles Avenue.