web analytics
April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Judah Touro’

The Man Who Brought Judah Touro Back To Judaism

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Last month’s column sketched the life of Judah Touro (1775-1854), who became immensely wealthy after his move to New Orleans in 1802, using his fortune to support many causes and individuals. For years, however, Touro showed little or no interest in affiliating with anything Jewish in New Orleans.

The Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the editor of the first successful American-Jewish periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate who probably knew as much about Touro as anyone who was not a resident of New Orleans, said bluntly that “it was late in life when Mr. T. became impressed with the necessity of being an Israelite in more than in mere words.” This explicit statement is supported by the fact that it was not until about 1847, seven years before his death, that Touro began to do anything to perpetuate Jewish life in New Orleans. In that year he purchased an Episcopal church and set about making the multifarious and expensive arrangements for its conversion into a synagogue for the Sephardic congregation Nefutzoth Yehudah.1

In the last years of his life Touro davened regularly at Congregation Nefutzoth Yehudah and even became a strict Sabbath observer, as the following letter makes clear:

New Orleans, January 5th, 1852.
H. Bier, Esq.,
President,
Firemen’s Charitable Association:

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. Touro2

 

The man primarily responsible for Touro’s return to religious observance was Gershom Kursheedt (1817-1863). He also influenced Touro to leave large sums of money to a variety of Jewish causes both here and in Eretz Yisrael.

Kursheedt was the seventh child of Israel Baer and Sarah Abigail Seixas Kursheedt. Israel Baer Kursheedt was a learned Jew who had studied in the yeshiva of Rav Nosson Adler in Frankfurt, Germany, before coming to America in 1796. (For details of Israel Baer Kursheedt’s life see “America’s First Torah Scholar: Israel Baer Kursheedt,” The Jewish Press, February 7, 2007, page 1 – www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=20616). His mother was Sarah Abigail (Sally) Seixas, the eldest daughter of Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who served as chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel for almost fifty years, for whom he was named.

“I have but one ambition in life,” Gershom wrote in a letter to his friend Isaac Leeser, “and that is to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of God and man.”3

Gershom moved to New Orleans in late 1839 or early 1840, going into business as a broker and becoming involved in the Jewish community. He joined Congregation Shanarai-Chasset (Gates of Mercy), the first synagogue established in New Orleans.

Some time during the late 1830s the congregation had discarded the Sephardic ritual and adopted the Ashkenazic, probably because of the large influx of German-born Jews, and the inability of any leader to conduct the Sephardic ritual. Kursheedt was one of the fifty-one members who signed the new by-laws of 1841 which, among other changes, noted that the services should be “in conformity with the rules and customs of the German Israelites,” and henceforth banned the membership of any man who had intermarried. When the Hebrew Benevolent Society of New Orleans was established in 1844, Gershom became its first treasurer.

Shortly after the High Holy Days of 1845, Kursheedt organized a new Sephardic congregation, called the Dispersed of Judah – Nefutzoth Yehudah; in the year and a half prior to its receipt of a charter from the state, Kursheedt succeeded in persuading forty men to join the congregation.4

 

Jewish Endeavors

Although Touro would not consider joining the Dispersed of Judah Congregation, he was somehow persuaded to accept the financial responsibility of providing it with a synagogue. How Gershom accomplished this is an “enigma wrapped in a mystery” – unless it was not Gershom who was the successful advocate, but Rezin Shepherd [a friend of Touro's, who had saved his life when Touro was wounded in battle in 1815]. It is surely more than a coincidence that Touro finally bestirred himself to do something concrete for the Jewish community of New Orleans at the very same time that Shepherd’s church had outgrown its building and was planning a new structure. Our best judgment is that Shepherd – according to Kursheedt, the one man who knew how to deal with Touro – told Touro of Christ Church’s plans and suggested that it would be a good idea for him to trade some desirable land that he owned in exchange for the church, and then to remodel the building into a synagogue. But, even so, it may have been Kursheedt who suggested the idea to Shepherd.5

Kursheedt, as president of the new congregation, had the headache of supervising the renovation of the church building so that it could serve as a synagogue. Touro, who was providing the funds, insisted on approving every detail. Often he could not make up his mind concerning what he wanted, and, even after making a decision, he would change his mind more than once. In December 1847 Gershom wrote to his close friend Isaac Leeser (for a sketch of Leeser’s life see “Isaac Leeser: Architect of Traditional Judaism in America,” The Jewish Press, June 22, 2007, page 1 – www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=21906):

Mr. Touro is the very impersonation of a snail, not to say of a crab whose progress (to use a paradox) is usually backward. My patience is well nigh exhausted with him and I am interrogated by so many concerning his intentions that it is not unusual for me to dodge a corner in order to avoid meeting certain parties who seem to think that I am making a mystery of the matter.6

Had he died in the 1820s or 1830s, Touro probably would have left substantial sums of money to many charitable organizations, but certainly not to Jewish organizations. Toward the end of his life, through the efforts of Kursheedt and Leeser, Touro returned to the religious practices of his ancestors, and Kursheedt was able to influence him to make generous bequests to a number of Jewish causes. It took considerable effort because Touro was a stubborn, difficult man who had trouble making up his mind. Nonetheless, Kursheedt had considerable success.

Touro’s gifts to orphans’ homes and other Christian welfare agencies in New Orleans, and for the construction of a new almshouse, totaled $120,000. Philanthropic institutions in Boston, to which his brother Abraham had been devoted, received $20,000. In Newport, Rhode Island, his old home, $10,000 was given to the Old Stone Mill Park, and $3,000 to the Redwood Library.

The Jews of New Orleans received a total of $108,000 – including property worth $48,000 to Dispersed of Judah, $40,000 in property (the Paulding estate) for a Jewish hospital (Touro Infirmary) in New Orleans, $5,000 for Shanarai-Chasset and $15,000 for local benevolent societies including the utopian effort to send assistance to the dwindling Jewish community in China.

An endowment of $10,000 was established for the Newport synagogue and cemetery. A total of $60,000 went toward the relief of the poor Jews of Palestine, $50,000 to be used at the discretion of the distinguished British Jewish leader, Sir Moses Montefiore. Congregations, religious schools, benevolent societies and Jewish hospitals in Boston, Hartford, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo and Albany received a total of $143,000.

There is no question that through his influence on Judah Touro, Gershom Kursheedt fulfilled his ambition “to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of God and man.” Jewry owes him a considerable debt of gratitude.

 

1 “A Reappraisal of Judah Touro” by Bertram W. Korn, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 45, 1955, page 572.

2 Ibid. pages 573-574.

3 The Seixas-Kursheedts and the Rise of Early American Jewry by Kenneth Libo and Abigail Kursheedt Hoffman, Bock Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, page 51.

4 The Early Jews of New Orleans by Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA, 1969, page 248.

5 Ibid. page 249.

6 The Early Jews of New Orleans, page 250.

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Judah Touro: Legendary Philanthropist

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

“[Judah] Touro’s name will always be numbered among the foremost in the annals of American philanthropy. His charities knew neither race nor creed, and his public spirit was no less noteworthy.”[i]

Touro accumulated a huge fortune during his lifetime, dying a very wealthy man.

 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. These provisions were published throughout the United States and even in the journals and periodicals of many European countries. Among the larger bequests were $80,000 for founding the New Orleans Almshouse, liberal endowments for nearly all the Jewish congregations of the country, bequests to the Massachusetts Female Hospital, the Female Asylum, and the Boys’ Asylum of Boston, and one for the preservation of the old cemetery at Newport, and for the payment of the salary of the minister of the old synagogue in that city. A large sum was also left in trust to Sir Moses Montefiore for almshouses in Jerusalem. In addition to these, there were private bequests.[ii]

Judah Touro was born in Newport, Rhode Island on June 16, 1775. His father, Isaac, was the Dutch-born chazzan of Congregation Yeshuat Israel (later known as the Touro Synagogue); his mother, Reyna Hays, was born in America. Chazzan Touro sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and even received a stipend from them after the British captured Newport. When he relocated to New York City in 1780, which was at that time under British rule, he also benefited from British largesse. By the end of 1782 it became increasing clear that the British would lose the war, so Isaac Touro and his family emigrated to Jamaica. When Chazzan Touro passed away on December 8, 1783, his widow and four children returned to Boston, where they lived in the home of Mrs. Touro’s brother, Moses Michael Hays. Mrs. Touro passed away on September 28, 1787, leaving Judah an orphan at age 12.
 Of Touro’s youth in Boston, hardly anything is known. He probably received little formal education; years later, Gershom Kursheedt – who knew him very well – said that Touro’s “great misfortune was in his want of education.” This probably meant, at the very least, that Touro evinced no interest in cultural matters. Moses Michael Hays was a prosperous merchant and insurance broker; Judah and his younger brother Abraham seem to have been apprenticed in their uncle’s counting house at a fairly young age and to have learned there the ways of commerce which they followed for the rest of their lives.[iii]

In 1802 Judah Touro settled in News Orleans, Louisiana, a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants, which at that time was under the control of the French. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the region came under American rule.

There he opened a store, and soon built up a thriving trade in New-England products. Later he became the owner of many ships and of valuable real estate, until he was numbered among the most prominent merchants of the place. After the territory had become part of the United States, Touro repeatedly exhibited his public spirit. During the defense of New Orleans by Andrew Jackson [during the War of 1812] he entered the ranks as a common soldier, and was severely wounded on Jan. 1, 1815, being given up for dead; but he was saved by the bravery and care of his friend Rezin Davis Shepherd, a young Virginian merchant, who had settled in the same city. Their friendship continued throughout their lives; and both of them amassed great fortunes.[iv]

Orthodox journalist Isaac Leeser wrote of Touro, “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 .”

Touro’s wealth was not secured through commercial genius, or through skyrocketing profits, but gradually, through unremitting attention to his work, and through strict economies in his personal life. Perhaps he was always haunted by the private fear of a repetition of the penury in which his early years had been spent, when first his family existed on the meager dole provided by the British army, and when later he himself had to live on his uncle’s charity.

Perhaps, too, it was his homeless childhood which led him to invest most of his savings in real estate. By 1812, he had already purchased a tract of land eighteen leagues below New Orleans. His earliest acquisition of a lot and building in the city itself which we have been able to discover in the notarial records took place in 1818. Property which he bought in 1821 was still among his holdings when he died. Confident in the future of New Orleans, he purchased lot after lot, virtually all in the commercial center of the city, paid cash, erected buildings, and collected rents.

He appears not to have mortgaged any of his property; hence he was unaffected by the periodic economic slumps and panics which at one time or another drove most of New Orleans’ businessmen into bankruptcy. Almost three-quarters of the assessed value of his estate was invested in these properties and buildings which he had bought and developed over the long years. He had indeed, as Leeser reported, “saved a fortune,” and it in turn increased in real value because the growth of New Orleans continued throughout the years. His net assets continued to increase, because he never retired from business activity.[v]

Judah Touro became a benefactor to all sorts of causes.

His charities knew neither race nor creed, and his public spirit was no less noteworthy. To Amos Lawrence and Judah Touro belongs the credit of supplying the funds for completing the Bunker Hill Monument, each subscribing $10,000 for the purpose. Another object of his generosity was his native city of Newport. In 1842 he improved the enclosures of the old Jewish cemetery immortalized by Longfellow; and it was his money which purchased the Old Stone Mill supposed to have been built by the Norsemen, Touro’s desire being that the historic landmark and the surrounding grounds might be saved for the town. The grounds in which the mill is situated are still known as Touro Park. [vi]

Interestingly, Judah Touro showed virtually no interest in anything Jewish during the first years of his residence in New Orleans:

Far from having been an avid leader and participant in Jewish life and Jewish causes in New Orleans from the earliest years of Jewish communal organization in the city, Touro appears on only two occasions prior to 1847 to have taken even the slightest interest in the life of his fellow Jews.

His first expression of interest was in 1828 when Jacob S. Solis of New York organized the first New Orleans congregation, “The Israelite Congregation of Shanarai-Chasset,” and Touro was listed (mistakenly as “J. Turo”) not as a member of the congregation, but as one of “the Israelite Donors, who are not members of the Congregation.”

The fact that Touro would not consent to join this first congregation in the city where he had probably been the first Jew to establish permanent residence is astonishing.[vii]

Yet, beginning in about 1845, Judah Touro became more and more involved in Jewish life and eventually became strictly Shomer Shabbos. Two men were responsible for this: Gershom Kursheedt and Isaac Leeser.

To be continued next month.

 

[1] Touro, Judah, by Joseph Jacobs and L. H?hner, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 12, Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 190-1906, pages 212-213. This article is available at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=283&letter=T

2 Ibid.

3 The Early Jews of New Orleans by Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA, 1969, page 76.

4 Touro, Judah, The Jewish Encyclopedia.

5 The Early Jews of New Orleans, pages 82-83.

6 Touro, Judah, The Jewish Encyclopedia.

7 “A Reappraisal of Judah Touro” by Bertram W. Korn, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 45, 1955, page 570.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/judah-touro-legendary-philanthropist/2008/12/03/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: