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!
The Hays and Touro families were among the most important in New England in the colonial and early national periods. Moses Michael Hays was the leader of the two families. His contributions to Masonic history are still honored. His mentoring of the Touro brothers guided them to become two of America’s earliest and most generous philanthropists.
Moses Michael Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Dutch immigrants Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. Judah took Moses into his shipping and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left Moses the business and largest share of his assets. Judah left Moses something else as well: a firm grounding in his Jewish faith and responsibilities. Moses served New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel as second parnas (vice-president) in 1766 and parnas in 1767. Moses retained an attachment to Shearith Israel, appearing on donor lists intermittently throughout his life.
In 1766, Moses married Rachel Myers, younger sister of famed New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Hays continued his shipping business. “Various losses at sea and other inevitable misfortunes” landed Hays in debtor’s prison, but under a 1771 reform law, Hays liquidated his assets and was set free. He immediately reestablished himself in the trans-Atlantic trade.
Hays and his family left Newport for Boston ahead of the British occupation in 1776. There, he opened a shipping office and was among the first merchants to underwrite trade to the newly opened Far Eastern markets. In 1784, Hays was a founder and the first depositor of the Massachusetts Bank, and with his close friend Paul Revere and fourteen other Boston businessmen, he formed several insurance companies.
Hays was instrumental in establishing the Masonic movement throughout New England. When Hays was accepted into the Massachusetts Lodge in November 1782, he was its only Jewish member, a signal that Hays had won entry into Boston society. In 1792 Hays was elected Grand Master of the Lodge and sponsored Paul Revere to serve as his Deputy.
The Hays family lived on Boston’s fashionable Middle (now Hanover) Street, in a large brick home with 15 rooms that they filled to capacity with their seven children. When his widowed sister Reyna Touro died in 1787, Moses and Rachel raised his young nephews Abraham and Judah and his niece Rebecca. Samuel May, author Louisa May Alcott’s grandfather, was a close childhood friend of the Hays and Touro children. He recalled “Uncle and Aunt Hays” for their pride in their Judaism:
If the children of my day were taught among other foolish things to dread, if not despise Jews, a very different lesson was impressed upon my young heart….[The Hays] house…was the abode of hospitality…He and his truly good wife were hospitable, not to the rich alone, but also to the poor….I witnessed their religious exercise, their fastings and their prayers…[As a result] I grew up without prejudice against Jews—or any other religionists.
Lacking a synagogue, the Hays family conducted regular worship services in their home. The household library contained dozens of Hebrew books. And the Jewish commandment to dispense charity directed much of what the Hays family did on behalf of Boston and its citizens. Moses Michael Hays provided financial support to beautify Boston Common, establish theaters and endow Harvard College. His children and nephews went on to lead distinguished lives. Son Judah Hays was the first professing Jew elected to Boston public office. Nephews Judah and Abraham Touro would go on to set new standards for American philanthropy.
Moses Michael Hays died in 1805. His obituaries in the secular press remembered him as “a most valuable citizen. . . . now secure in the bosom of his Father and our Father, of his God and our God.”