Life in 18th Century Jerusalem at the First Hebrew Bank

The exhibition at the Eretz Israel museum reveals life in 18th-century Jerusalem through the Jacob Valero Bank, the first Jewish financial institution in Palestine, founded by a ritual slaughterer from Turkey.

Between late 1899 and early 1900, historian Abraham Shmuel Hershberg lived in Jerusalem. He was impressed by one new and thriving institution that had a very important role in the local business scene: The Jacob Valero Bank – the first private bank in the Land of Israel.

The founder of the bank, Jacob Valero, was a ritual slaughterer. He was born in 1813 in Istanbul, and his family came to pre-state Israel from Turkey. He later became a moneychanger. In 1848, along with a number of other local businessmen, Valero established the bank in a small two-room apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate.

The story of the Valero Bank, the first Jewish financial institution in Palestine, is now being presented in a new exhibition in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The curator, Cecilia Meir, presents the story of the bank, called the first Hebrew bank, through pictures, letters, newspaper clips, stock certificates, bonds, bills, checks and other documents from the bank's founding until it closed its doors in 1915 during World War 1. The exhibition will run through June 30, 2013.

As the bank's operations expanded, it opened two more branches in Damascus and Jaffa. The Valero family developed broad ties with various non-Jewish groups as well as with foreign consular bodies. "Networks of contact between the Valero family and various sectors of the non-Jewish population – Arabs, Europeans and Ottoman and foreign consular bodies – were nurtured," wrote professors Ruth Kark and Joseph Glass, the authors of the book "Sephardi Entrepreneurs in Jerusalem: The Valero Family 1800-1948."

The Jewish community in 18th-century Jerusalem lived mostly on foreign donations. When these contributions fell short, thousands starved. Various entrepreneurs and philanthropists came to the rescue at times, including such well-known figures as Moses Montefiore and the Rothschild family. They both used the Valero Bank to transfer funds from overseas to the Jewish community in Jerusalem.

In 1880, after the death of Jacob Valero, his son Haim Aharon Valero was appointed to run the bank in his stead. David Yellin, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, wrote that Valero was the "lord of Jerusalem." He wasn’t the only one who saw him this way. "Almost every description or mention of [Valero] in sources from the period opens with a list of his titles, honors or virtues," wrote Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, one of the curators of the exhibition.

Valero became a local hero because of his connections with the Ottoman rulers in Jerusalem and Istanbul and with the global figures who used the services of his bank. He was a noble figure on the local scene, which blossomed in the final days of the Ottoman Empire and received a number of the honors the disintegrating Ottoman government passed out to local dignitaries in regions distant from the its center.

The fascinating documents not only shed light on the bank and its operations, but also on life in general in 18th-century Jerusalem. One such document is a list of the bank's customers, accompanied by comments in Ladino and French, such as recommendations and instructions as to the customers' levels of risk and the credit they received in 1907.

The World War I and its upheavals brought an end to the bank in 1915 – and promoted the growth of a non-religious community – and the younger generation of the Valero family was interested in other professions. But the family remains proud of its history and provided the museum with most of the documents and objects appearing in the exhibition.

Tal Cohen