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Judah Touro (1775-1854)

Touro College is named for Judah Touro and his father Isaac. Judah had a very interesting life story, connected with major events of American history.

Judah’s father Isaac was from Holland. In 1762 he was chosen as the chazan at the Portuguese congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. This was the first official synagogue in the Americas.

Due to the impact of the Revolutionary War in Newport, the family had to move to New York in 1780, when Judah was 5. (Isaac was a Tory, siding with the British.) Thereafter, the family moved again to Jamaica, in the British West Indies.

After Isaac died in 1783, his wife moved back to the U.S. with her four children to Boston to live with her brother. She died in 1787, and Judah and his siblings were raised by this uncle, a wealthy merchant. The uncle trained Judah in his business and Judah undertook voyages for him.

But in 1801, at the age of 26, Judah decided to leave Boston. He had wanted to marry his uncle’s daughter but his uncle refused him permission.

Judah chose to go to New Orleans. He opened a store there. His timing was fortuitous. The city was in Spanish hands at the time of his arrival, but it was soon transferred to France and, in 1803, Louisiana was sold by Napoleon to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Judah was ideally positioned to capitalize on the subsequent commercial boom. He traded in goods sent by his contacts in New England and then invested his profits in ships and New Orleans real estate, and became very wealthy.

He enlisted in the army in the War of 1812. In 1815, in the Battle of New Orleans, a cannonball smashed his leg, ripping off most of his thigh. He required more than a year to recover. The doctors had thought he would not survive. He was nursed back to health by a close friend who he later made the executor and residual beneficiary of his estate. The wound left Touro with a limp and upper leg damage.

(The Battle of New Orleans was fought on Jan. 8, 1815. On our side, it was led by Andrew Jackson. It took place 18 days after the signing of the treaty that formally ended the war on Dec. 24. But news of the agreement had not yet reached the U.S. from Europe.)

After the war, Judah resumed his business interests in shipping, trade and real estate. He lived a simple life in a small apartment. “I have saved a fortune by strict economy,” he said, “while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures.” He never married.

The first synagogue in the state was founded in New Orleans in 1828, but Judah did not join as a member, although he did provide it with some financial assistance. It was a small synagogue, composed mostly of Jews from Ashkenazic backgrounds. (There were probably only about 100 Jews in the entire state at this time.) About 20 years later, Jews of Spanish and Portuguese background decided to found a synagogue and Judah was much more involved in the establishment of this one, as Sefardic ritual was the one he grew up with. (In 1881, the synagogues merged. The united synagogue is named for (Judah) Touro.)

Having grown up in the North and being an abolitionist, he would sometimes purchase slaves in order to free them.

In 1840 he gave $10,000 to Boston to complete the long-languishing Bunker Hill monument, whose construction had begun years earlier. At the dedication ceremonies in 1843, Daniel Webster, American’s greatest orator at the time, praised Judah and fellow funder Amos Lawrence: “Amos and Judah—venerated names, Patriarch and prophet press their equal claim. Like generous coursers running ‘neck to neck,’ each aids the work by giving it a check. Christians and Jews, they carry out one plan. For though of different faith, each is in heart a man.” Lawrence was a wealthy philanthropist who was not Jewish. His father had fought at Bunker Hill.

Judah Touro’s lasting fame was as a philanthropist. He contributed $40,000, an immense sum at the time, to the Jewish cemetery at Newport.

In New Orleans, he used his business profits to buy and endow a cemetery and to build a synagogue, an almshouse and an infirmary for sailors, as well as a church for a minister whom he greatly admired. The infirmary became the largest free hospital in Louisiana, the Touro infirmary.

He was a major contributor to many Christian charities in New Orleans, as well as to such varied causes as the American Revolutionary War monument at Bunker Hill, and the relief of victims of a large fire in Mobile, Alabama. In a New Orleans fund-raising drive for Christians suffering persecution in Jerusalem, he gave ten times more than any other donor.

He donated $20,000 to the hospital that is now known as Mt. Sinai Hospital. This led to its opening in 1855.

Though he gave liberally to charitable objects during his entire life, the provisions of the will of Touro, who died unmarried, disposed of over half a million dollars in charity, an enormous sum in those days. It included gifts to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. No American Jew had ever given so much to so many agencies and causes; nor had any non-Jew done so much in such varied ways.

Among the larger bequests were $80,000 for founding the New Orleans Almshouse, endowments for nearly all the Jewish congregations of the country (23 congregations in 14 states), bequests to the Massachusetts General Hospital, and to the Boston Asylum of Orphan Boys, and the Boston Asylum of Female Orphans, and one for the preservation of the Jewish cemetery at Newport, and for the payment of the salary of the leader of the synagogue in that city. $50,000 was left in trust to Moses Montefiore to help the Jews in Israel. Montefiore used this to build the first Jewish residential settlement outside the Old City, Mishkenot Sha’ananim.

Judah’s will also included a $5,000 gift to his cousin whom he had wanted to marry decades earlier. She had never married anyone else. (It is possible they corresponded for decades.)

Judah lived in New Orleans for more than 50 years. As mentioned above, the Touro Infirmary and the Touro Synagogue are named in his memory. Also, a Judah Touro Scholarship is given at Tulane University.

Judah Touro is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Newport that he endowed. He was the final surviving member of the Touro family. On his tombstone are inscribed the words: “The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever.”

As to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, it was built in 1859-60 as an almshouse for the poor. It was the first Jewish building built outside the walls of the Old City. Because it was outside the walls, it was viewed as unsafe and Jews were reluctant to move in, even though the housing was luxurious compared to the overcrowded Old City. People had to be paid to live there. A stone wall was built around the compound with a heavy door that was locked at night. The name of the neighborhood was a paraphrase of Isa. 38:12: “My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, with “mishkenot mivtachim” and “menuchot sha’ananot.” (The last word comes from the root שאן =tranquil.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He hopes to be inscribed in the “Book of Jewish Writers.”

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