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New Orleans Jews Celebrate Mardi Gras with a Twist

New Orleans Jews Celebrate Mardi Gras with a Twist

At Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, the open tent imagery from the biblical narrative of Abraham strongly influences our approach to sacred community. We have created a culture of permeability – constantly embracing efforts to remove the walls between our observance and our surroundings. The sustaining value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is part of our daily, weekly, and yearly rhythm.

This story is one of our favorites.

Floats roll down St. Charles Avenue, their occupants draping multicolored strands of beads on the branches of our live oaks. The air is filled with the noise of drum rolls, cymbal crashes, and trumpet blasts from high school marching bands blended with cheers from the crowd.  “Throw me something, mister!”

This is Mardi Gras in New Orleans. At Touro Synagogue, we interlace our own observances with the Mardi Gras season, celebrating Shabbati Gras (Fat Shabbos!) followed by parade watching revelry together as a congregation.  Indeed, the steps of our sanctuary give us front row seats for the show.

Mardi Gras lasts for weeks, with parades during the weekends leading up to the big day, and more than a million people filling our streets each year. All this activity can create a logistical nightmare for visitors, especially for families, whose central concerns -- besides participating in the festivities -- often revolve around finding clean bathrooms, places to rest, water and food. And if your family includes a member with special needs – perhaps a child in a wheelchair – how do you maneuver through the crowds?

Five years ago, congregant Dr. Juan Gershanik came to Touro with a proposition. What if we took the space we’re so lucky to have on the parade route, and offered it to children with disabilities and their families? Our Mardi Gras stands would serve as a safe place for kids with special needs, sheltering them from the crowds that can make navigating parades a dangerous proposition.  Members of our congregation rallied around the idea, reaching out to schools that cater to kids with disabilities, building a wheelchair accessible platform on our sanctuary’s steps and providing the logistical support needed to make this important mitzvah a reality. 

Every year since, we’ve opened our synagogue to children with disabilities and their families within our local community. Known as the Krewe of VIPs, they come from all religious faiths and backgrounds. “Believe it or not, this is the first Mardi Gras a lot of these families can enjoy.” Gershanik said. “There are so many priceless moments. I choke up when I think about the families hugging me and the smiles of the kids.”

In fact, the entire community gets behind the Krewe of VIPs. Touro Infirmary, a nearby hospital that shares the same benefactor as our synagogue, opens the hospital’s parking garage for the families to use. Food and king cakes, along with blankets and books all are donated. Local entertainers, including musician and magicians, pitch in, too, providing amusement during breaks in bead-catching.

“It gives me butterflies thinking about it and to know there are so many people behind it,” Gershanik said about the outpouring of community support the Krewe of VIPs receives. “It makes me proud to be a member of Touro.”

Melissa Garber is the Programming and Education Coordinator for Touro Synagogue.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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