This Day in Jewish History

1775: Scion of Famous U.S. Jewish Family, Who Gave Money to Charity and His Heart to His Cousin, Is Born

Judah Touro dedicated much of his life to making heaps of cash – and spent the rest of it giving it away, though not all the beneficiaries were grateful.

Swampyank / Wikimedia Commons

June 16, 1775, is the birthdate of Judah Touro, scion of a prominent Newport family who became a fabulously wealthy trader in New Orleans, and one of the greatest American philanthropists of his day.

Having had his heart broken as a young man, Touro never had a family of his own. Instead, he dedicated his life entirely to making money – and then to giving it away.

Judah Touro was one of the three children of Isaac Touro and the former Reina Hays. Isaac, a cantor by training, had arrived in Rhode Island from Amsterdam in 1758, having been recruited by Newport’s Yeshuat Israel synagogue (later, Touro Synagogue). Reina was the daughter of the Jewish New York businessman Judah Hays.

Soon after the American War of Independence began, in 1776, the British occupied Newport, and most of the town’s residents fled. Left with no congregants, Isaac Touro moved with his family to New York, and then again, in 1782, to Kingston, Jamaica, where he was offered a job by the local Jewish community.

When Isaac died, in 1783, his widow took their children to Boston, where her brother, businessman Moses Michael Hays, lived. He took Reina and her family in, and after her death, in 1787, he continued caring for the children.

Touro, however, made the mistake of falling in love with Moses’ daughter Catherine, and she with him. Apparently the two wanted to marry, but they were first cousins, and Catherine’s father would not condone the match. He sent Judah off on a business trip Europe, and when, after his return, he and Catherine persisted in their love for one another – he apparently banished the young man from his household. The two cousins never were to meet again.

In 1801, Touro made his way to New Orleans, where he set up a small business, acting as the local representative of merchants from New England. As New Orleans grew and prospered, so did he, becoming a major trader and owner of ships and real estate, for which he always paid in cash.

During the War of 1812, Touro, though approaching 40, joined the army led by Andrew Jackson in the defense of New Orleans. In the battle of January 1, 1815, he was badly wounded when a 12-pound piece of shot ripped out a piece of his leg.

The doctor who examined Touro declared him a lost cause. But by chance, a close friend, Rezin David Shepherd, heard about his injury, and took over his care, spending a year nursing Touro back to health.

'Personification of a crab'

Touro remained in New Orleans until his death, at age 78. He lived an ascetic’s life, giving away his money – both to needy individuals, often anonymously, and also to educational, health and religious institutions, both Jewish and Christian.

Yet because of his insistence on being involved in the details when his money was being spent, he was not always appreciated by his beneficiaries. Popular historian Jerry Klinger, in a long article about Touro, quotes from correspondence between two rabbis, Isaac Leeser, of Philadelphia, and Gershom Kursheedt, in New Orleans, both of whom depended on him for funding, but who mocked him in private. Kursheedt, for example, described him to Leeser as “the very impersonation of a snail, not to say of a crab whose progress (to use a paradox) is usually backward.”

For his part, Leeser concurred that “Mr. T. was not a man of brilliant mind; on the contrary, he was slow, and not given to bursts of enthusiasm.”

When Touro died, on January 16, 1854, his estate was worth more than $500,000. He left bequests for nearly every synagogue in the U.S., and for hospitals in New Orleans and New York. He also endowed money for the poor of Jerusalem, which was used to build Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first housing constructed outside the Old City. And this is but a very partial list of his beneficiaries.

Touro also left a sum in his will to be given to Catherine Hays, who like him never married. Unbeknownst to Judah, however, Catherine had died 16 days before him.