Judah Touro: American Jewish Philanthropist

Judah Touro set the standard for Jewish American philanthropy by generously donating money to synagogues and other Jewish organizations.

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According to Judah Touro’s tombstone, he is inscribed in “the Book of Philanthropy, to be remembered forever.” No epitaph could be more deserving. Touro’s name is indelibly associated with the history of American Jewish philanthropy, a community trait of which American Jews can be proud.

Touro grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the second son of Dutch-born Isaac Touro, who was hazzan of Yesuat Israel, Newport’s Sephardic synagogue. The Revolutionary War destroyed Newport’s prosperity and Judah Touro’s childhood was marked by poverty and deprivation. A Tory, Judah’s father remained with his family in Newport after the British captured the city. The Touros became dependent upon the charity of the British occupying forces, which helped the family relocate to Jamaica, West Indies, where Isaac died in 1783. Hazzan Touro’s widow took her children to Boston to live with her brother, Moses Michael Hays. Her death in 1787 left Judah Touro an orphan at the age of twelve.

Moses Michael Hays raised the Touro children. He taught Judah and his brother Abraham to observe Judaism and apprenticed them in his international commercial ventures. In 1801, Touro unexpectedly left Boston for New Orleans. No one is certain why he left in such haste but the gossip of the time said that his uncle refused to allow Judah to marry his first cousin, Catherine Hays. In any case, he never married.

When the United States acquired New Orleans in 1803, its economy boomed and Touro established himself as a merchant, shipper, and leader in local social life. During the war with England in 1812, Touro fought as a volunteer under the command of General Andrew Jackson. In the great battle of January 1, 1815, Touro was severely wounded and near death, but over the next year a close friend nursed him back to health. The trauma seems to have had psychological as well as physical effects: the previously social Touro withdrew almost entirely from civic life and devoted himself to his businesses.
Judah Touro, ambrotype

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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