Shavuos, a time of kabolas Hatorah and transformation, is a fitting time to discuss one of the most remarkable turnabouts of 19th century American Jewish history. For most of his life, 19th century American tycoon Judah Touro gave charity to all comers. Jewish causes had no special priority on his list. But a few years before his passing he underwent such a transformation that his will included the most impressive list of Jewish causes ever to appear in the legacy of an American Jew. What inspired the turnabout?
Making a Fortune the Hard Way
Touro was born in Newport on Rhode Island in 1775 to his father Rev. Isaac Touro, chazzan of the town’s Congregation Yeshuat Israel. Fifteen families had founded the kehillah in 1658 when Governor Roger Williams promised religious freedom and liberty of conscience to all on the island. Rev. Isaac Touro supervised the building of Newport’s shul, which is presently the oldest shul in North America. A unique feature installed in the shul exists to this day – a secret escape hatch behind the bimah leading to the back of the building. Even in America, the Sephardi kehillah did not yet feel secure from sudden anti-Semitic attacks.
Orphaned of both his parents by the age of 12, Judah Touro was raised by his maternal uncle Moses Michael Hays, the most prominent Jew of Boston and a business partner of Paul Revere. Hays was a faithful Jew. In 1775, when 76 Newport citizens were requested to declare loyalty to the American Revolution “upon the true faith of a Christian,” Hays had refused to sign the document until the offending phrase was struck out.
At the age of 23, it appears that Touro made the mistake of asking his uncle for his daughter Catherine in marriage. Disliking the idea of cousin marriage, Hays forced him out of the family business, ejected him from his house, and ordered his daughter to have nothing more to do with him. Touro arrived in Spanish controlled New Orleans in 1820 and began building himself up from scratch.
His absolute integrity and New Orleans’ explosive economic growth after the United States acquired its southern territories in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase turned Touro into one of the ten wealthiest citizens of America. Reverend Isaac Leeser wrote that Touro made his fortune not through lucky speculation but through dogged persistence:
“Mr. T. was not a man of brilliant mind; on the contrary, he was slow, and not given to bursts of enthusiasm, as little as he was fond of hazardous speculations; and he used to say that he could only be said to have saved a fortune by strict economy, while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures… He had no tastes for the wasteful outlay of means on enjoyments which he had no relish for. He [had] thus the best wines always by him, without drinking them himself; his table, whatever delicacies it bore, had only plain and simple food for him.”
Although Touro was renowned as a great philanthropist, until the eighth decade of his life he distributed charity to all comers. There was not much Jewish about his largesse. Sadly, his generosity even extended to buying the foreclosed First Congregational Church of New Orleans in 1823 and giving it back to its congregation. Ironically, despite helping the church, due to Jewish scruples he never put foot in the building.
Prior to 1847, history records Touro giving only three times to Jewish causes, once to improve the enclosure of the Jewish cemetery at Newport, a second time when Jacob S. Solis of New York arrived in New Orleans in 1827 and organized the town’s first kehillah, The Israelite Congregation of Shangarai-Chassed, and a third time when he contributed $300 to the building fund of the Mikveh Israel Congregation of Philadelphia in about 1824. Then came a turnabout.
A True Israelite
In about 1845 when Touro was pushing 70, the devout broker and journalist Gershom Kursheedt influenced Touro to divert his money to Jewish causes. As Rev. Isaac Leeser testified, “It was late in life when Mr. T. became impressed with the necessity of being an Israelite in more than in mere words.”
Born in 1817, Kursheedt was a grandson of the first American born rav, Gershom Mendes Seixas of New York, and a son of the first Ashkenazi talmid chochom to arrive on American shores, Rav Israel Baer Kursheedt who had studied with Rav Nosson Adler in Frankfort before arriving in America in 1796. From these forebears, Gershom Kursheedt inherited a passionate love for Torah and mitzvos. Upon arriving in New Orleans in about 1840 to work in an uncle’s business, Kursheedt was shocked to find the city’s Shangarei-Chassed kehillah in disarray with no shofar or sefer Torah and not even enough Siddurim to go Around.
Of the kehillah’s so-called rabbi, a German periodical later wrote, “This is a rabbi? This stigma in the ranks of the Jewish ministry eats whatever comes before his maw, never keeps the feast of Passover; indeed has had none of his boys circumcised. In addition to his post as rabbi, Mr. Marks – that is his name – holds a job as an actor at the American Theatre and that of chief of one of the fire engines. At Purim, the book of Esther could not be read since, so the President of the Congregation informed the minyan, the rabbi/reader was preoccupied with his duties as fire chief… After his death the rabbi’s widow, a Catholic, was restrained only with difficulty from putting a crucifix in his grave.”
After making improvements in the existing shul, which included ridding it of intermarried members, 28-year-old Kursheedt founded a break-off shul, Nefutzoth Yehuda, with a membership of forty Jews, and determined to raise funds for its needs from none other than New Orleans wealthiest Jew, Judah Touro. With the help of a merchant who had saved Touro’s life during England’s attack of New Orleans during the 1812 War, Kursheedt persuaded Touro to buy and remodel a local church into a 470 seat shul. Kursheedt wrote to Rev. Leeser that this was no easy task. Touro generally thought things through very thoroughly, took time to reach decisions, and often changed his mind.
After the completion of the beautiful edifice in 1850, Touro symbolically transferred it to the kehillah by sealing a stone engraved with his donorship beneath the shul’s entrance. Rev. Leeser reported the event in his Occident newspaper:
“Owing to the well-known character of Mr. T., who is averse to all ostentation, the number present on this interesting occasion was limited to about ten persons, who had all more or less to do with the matter in hand, when it would have been an easy thing to have had a numerous attendance to witness the final and solemn transfer of all the highly valuable property constituting the Synagogue and its appurtenances, for the use of the congregation, by the donor.
“About half past ten of the above date, everything being in readiness, Mr. Touro, with his own hands, applied the requisite mortar beneath the memorial stone, and when it was properly adjusted, it was covered over with a slate slab, and the flooring was then replaced over all. It was to me a deeply affecting sight to behold this ancient Israelite, who for nearly half a century had been living at New Orleans, far from any congregation of his people, devoting in his 75th year so noble a portion of his wealth to the service of his Maker, and doing this without any parade whatever, feeling in truth that he gave for the sake of G-d what He had given him.”
Touro also erected a schoolhouse next to the shul, paid to establish a cemetery for the kehillah, and gave substantial support to the shul and kehillah until his death. Rev. Leeser testified that he was also a “regular attendant” at the services held of the new shul. In addition, he was shomer Shabbos. This is evidenced from a letter he appended to a donation he gave to the Fireman’s Charitable Association in 1852 after it saved much of his real estate from a fire:
“Sir: Having been made aware of the exhausted state of your treasury, and knowing the usefulness of fire departments, as exhibited on Saturday morning last, when through the activity of several companies, a considerable portion of my property was saved, I beg to present the enclosed one thousand dollars and hope that it may temporarily relieve the widows and orphans dependent on the association for support. Saturday, on which the fire occurred, being my Sabbath, has prevented me from sending this until this morning. Very respectfully, J. Touro.”
Touro had no wife or children. In 1853, when Touro felt his life was nearing its end, Kursheedt helped him draw up a will donating two hundred thousand dollars of his half million dollar estate to the most impressive list of Jewish causes ever to appear in the will of an American Jew. After his passing the next year, he was interred in the Jewish cemetery of Newport where he was born.
$60,000 of his estate was left “to ameliorate the condition of our unfortunate Jewish Brethren, in the Holy Land, and to secure to them the inestimable privilege of worshipping the Almighty according to our religion without molestation.” Kursheedt initially meant to use the funds to build a hospital in Yerushalayim, but after learning that the Rothschild family was planning a similar project, he used the money to build a housing project for the poor. This was the Mishkenos Shaananim neighborhood, one of the first housing projects outside the walls of the Old City. Dedicated in 1861, this now luxurious neighborhood with its famous windmill is a popular tourist site. A small museum dedicated to Montefiore who oversaw the building of the neighborhood obscures the fact that Montefiore actually paid for it with Touro’s money.
In an earlier article, we discussed how Touro’s admirers proposed erecting a statue in his honor and how detractors of the idea got a p’sak from Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsh concurring with their viewpoint that this would contravene the prohibition against making graven images. The humble Judah Touro surely wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise.