Unlike many of the great philanthropists recorded in history, Judah Touro (1775-1854) was neither the scion of old money nor a man famed for his incredible business talents. His philanthropic activities were so important to him that his tombstone was inscribed: “The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever.”
Judah Touro moved to New Orleans in 1802, where he demonstrated his business acumen. During the War of 1812, Touro enlisted in the military under the command of Andrew Jackson. During the Battle of New Orleans, Touro was severely wounded (a presumed fatal injury). He was rescued and nursed back to health by a close friend.
Touro’s philanthropic activities began on a civic level. He provided the funds, nearly $10,000, for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston as well as significant support for the Massachusetts General Hospital.
Late in his life, Touro befriended Gershom Kursheedt, who is credited with having renewed Touro’s interest in Jewish life. Not only did Touro begin attending services on a regular basis, but he was also one of the founders and the key supporter of the Nefuzoth Yehuda synagogue in New Orleans (which became part of what is today the Touro Synagogue).
In addition to supporting the New Orleans’ Jewish community, Touro took a particular interest in the Newport (R.I.) synagogue where his father had once served as the chazzan (cantor). Jeshuat Israel, as it was then called, was founded in 1658 and is most famous for the congregation’s correspondence with George Washington. Today, it is also known as the Touro synagogue in honor of the financial support it received from both Judah Touro and his brother Abraham.
Judah Touro passed away on the 19th of Tevet (today), 1854. His will contained an incredibly diverse list of donations to a long list of Jewish and non-Jewish causes. One of the most sizable bequests was $50,000 for Sir Moses Montefiore to distribute among the needy Jews of Palestine.
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