Interested in learning more about American Jewish history and AJHS-New England Archives? Join our mailing list today to receive our quarterly newsletter and event invitations!
According to Judah Touro’s tombstone, he is inscribed in “the Book of Philanthropy, to be remembered forever.” No epitaph could be more deserving. Judah Touro helped shape the character of American philanthropy, modeling the role that American Jews have played in the nation’s history of charitable giving.
Judah Touro grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the second son of Dutch-born Isaac Touro, who was hazzan (prayer leader) of Yeshuat Israel, Newport’s Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) synagogue. The British occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War destroyed the town’s economy. Judah Touro and his brother Abraham experienced childhood poverty. Their father was a Tory sympathizer and kept the family in Newport after the British captured the city. The Touros became dependent upon the charity of the British occupying forces. Eventually, the family relocated 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 and Abraham Touro orphans under their uncle’s protection.
Despite living in a city with almost no other Jews, Moses Michael Hays taught Judah and Abraham to observe Jewish law and customs and apprenticed them in his commercial ventures. In 1801, Judah unexpectedly left Boston for the French colony of New Orleans. No one is certain why he left in such haste, but gossip had it 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 became a successful merchant shipper, real estate investor and leader in local social life. During the war of 1812 with England, Touro fought as a volunteer in the Battle of New Orleans under the command of General Andrew Jackson. On New Year’s Day, 1815, Touro was severely wounded and near death, but over the next year his close friend Rezin Shepard nursed him back to health. The trauma seems to have had psychological as well as physical effects: The previously outgoing Touro withdrew almost entirely from civic life and devoted himself to his businesses.
Despite his financial success, Judah always remembered his youthful poverty and lived penuriously. He invested in real estate but never mortgaged his properties to finance more speculative ventures. Touro is quoted as observing that he had “saved a fortune by strict economy, while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures.”
While he was in his fifties and sixties, most of Touro’s charity was directed to non-Jewish causes. For example, 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 Redwood Library in his native Newport. In New Orleans he contributed to building a number of churches and the Catholic cathedral.
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. Touro later conducted a correspondence with rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. These men convinced Touro of the importance of being Jewish in deed as well as name. Touro joined eagerly in founding congregation Nefuzoth Yehuda in New Orleans, which followed the Sephardic rituals of Touro’s youth. He subsequently built its synagogue, provided the land for its cemetery and building for its religious school and annually made up for any deficits incurred. He also founded the city’s Jewish hospital, still known as Touro Infirmary.
In 1853, the final year of his life, Touro wrote a last will and testament that set the standard for American philanthropy. After modest bequests to Rezin Shepard and family members, Touro donated half 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 was divided among Jewish congregations and charitable institutions in eighteen other cities around the United States, providing support for virtually every traditional synagogue then existing in America. He directed that $50,000 be dispensed to relieve poverty and provide freedom of worship to Jews in Palestine. The other half of his bequests went to non-Jewish causes 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 bequests made it possible to maintain the historic synagogue where his father had served as hazzan and which 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.”