Monday, March 27, 2023

We recently sold a lovely apartment on Judah Touro Street, in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe section. This led to a lively WhatsApp group conversation about the life of Judah Touro.

Born in 1775 in Newport, Rhode Island, Touro was the son of Isaac Touro, the spiritual leader and cantor of the Newport Jewish community, and his wife, Reyna. The famous Touro Synagogue was built in 1763, and is the oldest synagogue in the United States.

Following his father’s death in 1783, Touro’s mother moved the family to Boston to live with her brother, Moses Michael Hays, a prominent civic leader and a successful merchant who founded Boston’s first bank. After she died in 1787, Hays and his wife, Rachel, raised the Touro children and mentored them in business.

Touro fell in love with his cousin Catherine Hays, but Uncle Moses—despite admiring his nephew’s integrity and talent—forbade the marriage. In 1798, Hays attempted to snuff out the romance by sending Touro on a lengthy trading voyage to the Mediterranean, hoping that their relationship would dissipate. However, absence made the heart grow fonder, and their love only deepened. Determined to end the relationship, Hays dismissed Touro from the family business and prohibited his daughter from ever speaking with him again.

In 1802, an embittered but determined Touro settled in New Orleans and opened a store where he sold food and other items from New England. His business blossomed, thanks to the tremendous regional growth powered by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (in which the U.S. doubled its size), and he became a prominent merchant, ship owner and real estate mogul. He lived an extremely modest life and resided in a small apartment despite his staggering financial success. However, his frugality did not extend to charity, as he generously donated large sums of money to a diverse array of causes.

In the 1840s, Touro befriended Gershom Kursheedt, who helped him rekindle his long-dormant spirituality and return to religious observance. Furthermore, toward the end of his life, Touro often corresponded with the scholarly Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. As Touro never married, Kursheedt and Leeser encouraged him to create a lasting legacy by leaving significant funds in his will to support Jewish causes. When Touro died in 1854, his will set the benchmark for Jewish philanthropy. The will disposed of over $500,000 in charity, a huge sum in those days, and provided funds for nearly every synagogue that existed in the U.S. Furthermore, substantial bequests were granted to a wide range of charitable institutions that supported people of all races and religions.

In addition, the will bequeathed a major gift to aid the Jews in the land of Israel, and Touro’s friend Sir Moses Montefiore was appointed as executor to oversee the project. Montefiore bought 10 acres of land and established Mishkenot Sha’ananim (literally “tranquil dwellings,” from Isaiah 32:18), the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. The complex included residences, a windmill and communal and religious facilities.

Today, Mishkenot Sha’ananim is part of the charming Yemin Moshe neighborhood, named after Sir Moses, and contains a guest house, convention center and music center—and the famous windmill has been converted into a museum. Touro’s sizable donation was revolutionary, as it launched the establishment of modern Jerusalem.

With a surprising touch of romantic flair, Touro’s will included a bequest to his cousin Catherine Hays “as an expression of the kind remembrance in which that esteemed friend is held by me.” Heartbreakingly, she passed away—also unmarried—just days before Touro’s death in 1854.

The epitaph on Touro’s tombstone in Newport accurately and succinctly summed up his achievements: “By righteousness and integrity he collected his wealth. In charity and for salvation he dispensed it. The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy, to be remembered forever.”

Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at [email protected] Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com

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