Touro Synagogue

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Areas of Inclusion: Adults in Communal Life, Advocacy & Community Partnerships, Architectural & Physical Accommodations and Transportation, Autism, B’nai Mitzvah, General Inclusion, Mental Health, Parents of Children with Disabilities, and Worship

About the Congregation

Touro Synagogue

4238 St Charles Avenue 

New Orleans, LA 70115

Number of Congregants: 200

Contact Information

Teri Hunter

Inclusion Programming

Does this congregation have an inclusion committee?


Developing Our Program

The need to more openly and intentionally address mental health came forth following a powerful sermon on the subject given by our Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Alexis Berk, one Yom Kippur. One congregant was moved to initiate a mental health committee. Countless others quickly joined the committee once a call to action was issued. The committee is comprised of congregants who have (or are) themselves touched by a host mental health issues awareness, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, educators, and those interested in the topic. Education, advocacy, programming, and maintaining referral lists of professionals and organizations who offer various types of support for various types of mental health issues are all a part of the committee’s work. We have also partnered with outside organizations in our work--NAMI New Orleans and, more recently, Jewish Family Service, New Orleans. The committee has recognized the need to support our congregants w ho may not have mental illness, but need help in achieving mental health. There is a rise in stress, anxiety and depression among children, adolescents and adults in the world today. We value prevention of mental illness and are supporting our members to develop mental wellness.

Mardi Gras is said to be 'The Greatest Free Show on Earth". Nevertheless the complexities of navigating Mardi Gras parades logistics and crowds makes this 'free show', a cornerstone of New Orleans life, difficult if not impossible for children with disabilities and their families to enjoy. Touro Synagogue is fortunate to occupy one of the most coveted pieces of real estate along the central parade route. What if we used our prominent place in geography and in this city's history to make a significant difference in the lives of children with disabilities and their families? What if we used our position to make inclusion a visible priority for one of the most significant cultural arts experiences in our city? Those were the questions we asked and the goals we sought and continue to seek.

The VIP Balcony is an accessible balcony at Touro Synagogue built for and provided free of charge to children (and sometimes adults) with disabilities and their families in the New Orleans community during some Mardi Gras parades. Food, entertainment, and friendship are a part of these extraordinary parade experiences. This full experiential program allows children who have a wide cross section of disabilities and who otherwise would not be able to participate in a fundamental cultural arts and entertainment experience in their home community to participate in a New Orleans 'right of citizenship'. Further, our Krewe of VIPs promotes organic understanding about children with disabilities and inclusion issues within our congregational community in the planning and in the highly visible and naturally occurring execution. Many members of our congregation and community partners work together for a common goal of inclusion in the thrill of Mardi Gras for our area's children with disabilities. In planning for each season's experiences, we reach out to local organizations who provide services for children (and adults) with disabilities, local schools, and physicians who help us 'recruit' guests for the Krewe of VIPs. We build an accessible balcony which allows front and center viewing cordoned off from the crowds for our young guests. This entertainment experience has had further, secondary and unexpected results: connections have been made amongst people who otherwise would not have connected and increased awareness about inclusion needs have prompted us to explore further needs and possibilities for inclusion within our own walls and beyond. Our model for inclusion with this experience is replicable across geographic and cultural regions in the awareness it promotes about inclusion in something that feels a fundamental 'given' to most people.

Number of people involved in the effort: 300

Involving People with Disabilities

See above.

Over the course of the years of programming, hundreds of our congregants have been and are involved at some level. Roughly 50 children with special needs benefit each parade.

Funding This Effort

Balcony first went up in 2010; Yom Kippur sermon on mental health was in 2014; programming and implementation of both are ever evolving.

Some of it doesn’t cost a thing, some of it is built into our budget under the social action line, some of it is funded by congregants themselves.

Helpful Agencies & Organizations


Spreading Awareness About Our Work

Transformative prayer, expansive thought, fearless engagement, and love are the core of our multi-faceted Jewish living as a congregation including spiritual, educational, community engagement, social justice, musical, and family activities. We are an active congregation within our walls and in both the Jewish and secular world of our greater community. In addition to our religious, spiritual, and prayerful life, we have focused our collective energies on education, crime, hunger, homelessness, LGBTQ civil rights and equality, mass incarceration, mental health awareness including impacting perception, and inclusion of all people in the experiences of our congregational life and general life experiences. We partner with greater community organizations, we promote programming and awareness on our website in weekly emails and in our order of service. We host educational offerings. We host a twice monthly Alzheimer’s Support group--this is listed on our calendar online. We don’t view our work in the area of inclusion as programming but rather as intentional manifestations of what we seek to bring light to within the human condition globally and within our congregation.

Process & Sharing

History, Materials & Processes that Guided Our Approach

Evidence of Successful Inclusion Efforts

The more openly we talk about all kinds of inclusion and diversity the more often conversations and awareness and actions come up between and amongst us all. It feels impossible to point to any one or more bits of ‘evidence’. It’s who we are. And it’s manifest in palpable but intangible ways.

The many arenas in which the congregation is active in the New Orleans community evidence Touro’s dedication to social justice and community service. We have an on-going desire to create opportunities for internal, community education and reflection about issues at the forefront of contemporary social concern. Through collaborative reflection and education, our congregation is moved to a deeper awareness of human circumstances on countless fronts. We believe that our actions and reflections are weaving webs of understanding and connectedness within our own synagogue community and also between our synagogue community and the greater New Orleans community. We hope our actions together support the most vulnerable and disenfranchised to feel the value in their own humanity and make a positive difference in our world and relationships with each other.

Evidence of Changing Attitudes

The more openly we talk about all kinds of inclusion and diversity the more often conversations and awareness and actions come up between and amongst us all. It feels impossible to point to any one or more bits of ‘evidence’. It’s who we are. And it’s manifest in palpable but intangible ways.

How We're Using and Sharing the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center

We will bring them forth as new resources for mental health committee, VIP balcony coordinators, board, clergy, professionals, and other lay leaders as applicable.

Future Inclusion Efforts

We are currently looking into funding to make our bima and Rabbi’s study and religious school building fully accessible. We continue to offer on-going mental health programming, support, and awareness in response to what we hear from congregants and see in our greater community.

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