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
Despite his financial success, Judah always remembered his youthful poverty and lived modestly. He invested in real estate but never mortgaged his properties to finance his other ventures. Touro is quoted saying that he had "saved a fortune by strict economy, while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures."

In his fifties and sixties, most of Touro’s charity was directed to non-Jewish causes. Most significantly, he donated the last $10,000 needed to complete the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, which for nearly twenty years had languished as an unfinished stump for want of funding. He made a major gift to the public library in his native Newport, and in New Orleans he contributed to building a number of churches and the Catholic cathedral.

(Image to the left: Judah Touro, ambrotype. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)

In his early seventies, Touro’s life was significantly influenced by his acquaintance with two outstanding Jewish leaders. Around 1847, Touro developed a friendship with Gershom Kursheedt of New Orleans, and conducted a correspondence with Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. These men convinced Touro of the importance of being Jewish is more than words. Touro joined eagerly in founding congregation Nefuzoth Yehuda in New Orleans, which followed the Sephardic rituals of Touro’s youth. He subsequently built it's synagogue, provided the land for its cemetery, a building for its religious school, and annually made up for any deficits incurred. He also founded the city's Jewish hospital, the Touro Infirmary.

In the last year of his life, Touro wrote a will that set the standard for American Jewish philanthropy. After modest bequests to friends and family members, Touro donated the bulk of his fortune to strengthen Jewish life in America. He left $100,000 to the two congregations and various Jewish benevolent associations in New Orleans. Another $150,000 went to Jewish congregations and charitable institutions in eighteen other cities around the United States, providing support for virtually every synagogue then existing in America. He directed that $60,000 be dispensed to relieve poverty and provide freedom of worship to Jews in Palestine. He also left bequests to non-Jewish organizations, such as the Massachusetts General Hospital, which his brother Abraham had helped found.

At his request, Touro was buried with his family in the Jewish cemetery in Newport. One of his legacies made it possible to re-open and restore the long-abandoned synagogue where his father had served as Hazzan and now bears the family name. The Jewish Encyclopedia observes that, in his day, "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."

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Michael Feldberg

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.