Alas, Mishkenot Sha’ananim has forgotten Judah Touro

In 1854, Touro – of New Orleans and Newport – made Eretz Yisrael the center of his unforgettable will.

The famous Monte ore Windmill in Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The famous Monte ore Windmill in Yemin Moshe
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a prominent monument to Judah Touro at the Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge; the steady flow of visitors to the Touro Synagogue and its cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, makes it one of the most notable American Jewish historical sites; and many other institutions throughout the US bear his name.
Yet Mishkenot Sha’ananim does not prominently honor Touro’s name, despite his enormous role in founding that neighborhood and expanding Jewish life beyond the Old City walls.
When he died in 1854, his will indicated that a gift of $60,000 (some $2 million in today’s dollars) was to be used to construct a new hospital for Jerusalem, but that was changed to construct residences for the poor of the city. His will indicated that Moses Montefiore was to oversee the construction, and by 1860 Mishkenot Sha’ananim opened.
Because Touro was dead and Montefiore was on the spot, the latter receives much more honor at Mishkenot Sha’ananim; only a diminutive plaque with Touro’s name can be found there if one searches diligently.
For an American like myself, born and bred in the US before making aliya with my family in 1977, I am proud of the first major gift of an American Jew for his co-religionists in Eretz Yisrael. I know of people who gave much less and they have big plaques in this country.
I will tell Touro’s story again and hopefully some of the Americans living here now will rally to the cause.
“YEARS WILL roll on, another generation will succeed us, many a name now shining in the meridian of its glory will be forgotten and unknown; yet the name and memory of Judah Touro will ever live in the hearts of posterity.”
I wish these words delivered at Touro’s 1854 funeral in Newport would inspire Israelis – especially Jerusalemites – to arise and thank him. All dignitaries, artists and professors who come to Mishkenot Sha’ananim should be given a lecture on Judah Touro. They know all about Sir Moses Montefiore, but visitors and Israelis know little or anything about the veteran of the War of 1812 who was a proud donor to the homeland that he was never able to see.
Bertram Korn, a noted historian of 19th-century American Judaism, wrote, “Touro became in death what he had never been in life: a local and national hero; a leader of men; a dignitary; a man of inspiring presence; an exemplary Jewish philanthropist. His significance in American Jewish history and in 19th century Eretz Yisrael history, by reason of the remarkable manner in which he disposed of his wealth, is a major one.”
What motivated Korn to write such a tribute? In 1854, at his death, Touro, who made his fortune in shipping and real estate, left close to $500,000 (about $15 million in today’s terms) to a variety of institutions.
Congregations, religious schools, benevolent societies and Jewish hospitals in 17 cities received a total of $143,000. The 18th city, his own, received $108,000 for the various arms of the Jewish community. His gift for the needy of Jerusalem totaled $60,000. In 1854, a gift to Palestine of such scale was a remarkable one.
Korn continues, “To dozens of Jewish congregations and institutions throughout the country [the US], many of them newly created, practically all in financial straits, he gave both material and moral encouragement.
To thousands of newly arrived immigrants hesitating on the threshold of a new life, he offered the example of a happy combination of self-respecting Judaism and avid Americanism, together with a high level of material success and generosity, which served to spur their own ambitions and hasten their acculturation to the new land.
“To the minds of many Americans, he contributed a benevolent portrait of ‘the Jew’ that contrasted forcefully with a distorted folk-image tainted with prejudice.
To Jews in Europe, from the exalted Sir Moses Montefiore to the lowest villager in unhappy Poland, Touro gave a new impression of the American Jew that helped to contrast the concept of the rough, uncouth, materialistic, irreligious American-Jewish frontiersman.”
Judah Touro, the New Orleans Jew, made quite an impact. Synagogues and synagogue wings, libraries, art museums, educational halls, a college, a cemetery and more bear his name. His portrait graces many of the institutions he supported. His likeness appears in a prominent bas-relief on a large marble panel at the state capitol of Louisiana in Baton Rouge; he is remembered there with the most famous citizens of the state.
Touro’s life inspired novelist Moses Wasserman to write Judah Touro in 1871, weaving facts about the philanthropist’s life into the fictionalized story. Touro was the first American Jew to contribute to Eretz Yisrael on a grand scale. Wasserman’s interest in this milestone is suggested in his description of Touro wrestling with the question of whether to include aid to the Holy Land in his will. Gershon Kursheedt, a leader in the New Orleans Jewish community and Touro’s unofficial adviser on Jewish affairs, told Touro about the notable work of Montefiore in Eretz Yisrael.
Convinced that Montefiore could carry out his wishes, Touro orders paragraph 27 of his will to be written: “It being my earnest wish to cooperate with the said Sir Moses Montefiore of London, Great Britain, in endeavoring to ameliorate the condition of our unfortunate Jewish brethren in the Holy Land and to secure to them the inestimable privilege of worshiping the Almighty according to our religion, without molestation, I therefore give and bequeath the sum of $50,000 to be paid by my executors for said object through the said Sir Moses Montefiore, in such a manner as he may advise, as best calculated to promote the aforesaid objects.”
Only a few days after completing his will, Touro died.
The major bequest of $50,000 and the $10,000 left the North American Relief Society of Indigent Jews of Jerusalem Palestine were both turned over to Montefiore.
In 1855, while visiting Jerusalem, Sir Moses purchased a large piece of land outside the walls of the Old City for $10,000 from Touro’s legacy, intending the site for the construction of a hospital.
KURSHEEDT WENT to Palestine to accompany Montefiore on this mission, helping to ensure fulfillment of Touro’s last wishes. Immediate action to go forward on the construction of the medical facility did not occur.
During the interim, another hospital was built in Jerusalem, so the funds were used by Montefiore to address a different need. This time, the building commenced immediately, and in the fall of 1860, a new structure with apartments for Sephardi and Ashkenazi “scholars” was ready. A plaque placed in the center of the building’s facade mentioned Touro as well as Montefiore.
“Despite Touro’s patronage,” the late Martin Gilbert wrote in Jerusalem: The Rebirth of a City, “the houses became known locally as ‘Sir Moses Montefiore’s Jewish Hospice’ or colloquially as ‘Montefiore’s cottages.’ Their official name was Mishkenot Shaananim.”
In March 1875, Montefiore recorded in his journal: “Remitted 150 pounds to Jerusalem to complete the Touro houses. Blessed be the memory of Mr. Touro; nevertheless his legacy has cost me 5,000 pounds.” Montefiore was apparently referring to supplemental payments he had made towards construction of the project.
I, and many others through the years, do not feel it is fair that the American Jew’s generous bequest that made possible the first Jewish building outside the Old City should be largely forgotten, as it has been for 170 years.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the Jewish Chronicle of London and the Jewish Messenger did, at times, refer to Touro’s almshouses, but that soon disappeared from use.
Even Montefiore felt pangs of remorse because he did not believe that Touro was receiving the recognition he should. In the Jewish Chronicle’s coverage of Montefiore’s last trip to Palestine, he was reported to have urged that either the name of the building be changed or that Touro’s role in the construction be better reflected. In spite of his larger-than-life reputation, Montefiore could not convince Jerusalemites to alter their impression that he had not only built the building but financed it as well.
So the sad fate of Judah Touro in Jerusalem has continued for many years. The tiny Touro Lane in Yemin Moshe and the nearby Touro Restaurant are the only significant visible reminders of his connection with the area and the city. The 1860 plaque can be spotted only close-up by guests at Mishkenot Sha’ananim.
On this 70th anniversary of the State of Israel and the 50th anniversary of a reunited Jerusalem, cannot Judah Touro be recognized in a more honorable way at Mishkenot Sha’ananim? When my family and I visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport in the 1970s before making aliya, we learned what Touro had done for the US and for Jerusalem. Now, 41 years since we made aliya, nothing has been added to celebrate Touro’s pioneering gift.
At the Herzl Museum in the movie of the story of Herzl, Chaplain Oscar Lifschitz’s picture has been added because he arranged for Herzl’s remains to be brought from Vienna to Jerusalem in 1949. Similarly, modern Jerusalem should add proper thanks to Touro for his prophetic gift from New Orleans. Isn’t it finally time to give him proper recognition in the Holy City’s honor roll? Then, as his eulogist said in 1854, “Touro will ever live in the hearts of posterity” – even in Israel.