Reviving the Montefiore Windmill

Ha'aretz meets the first descendant of Sir Moses Montefiore to settle in Israel.

"Arguably the most famous English-speaking Jew ever" is how Ra'anana resident Adam Sebag Montefiore describes his ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore.

Philanthropist and ambassador for the Jewish people, Sir Moses had no children; his heir was his favorite nephew, Sir Joseph Sebag, Adam Montefiore's great-great-grandfather. This connection has resulted in more than a famous surname for Adam Sebag Montefiore. Last month, the last monies of the 127-year-old Moses Montefiore Testimonial Fund, began to be distributed and Adam Montefiore's local synagogue, Kehilat Ra'anan, is one of the four final recipients.

The allocation - which will provide a new Torah scroll and fill up the library in Kehilat Ra'anan's new building - is fitting, says Montefiore.

In 1989, he, with his wife and three children, became the first descendant of Sir Moses to move to Israel, at least according to the Montefiore family tree, which dates back to 1605. Sir Moses, who earned his fortune in banking, insurance and a gas company, visited Palestine seven times during his lifetime. His most noted contribution in these parts was the construction in 1860 of the first Jewish buildings in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, Mishkenot Sha'ananim. Sir Moses, Montefiore purports, "would have been delighted that a member of the family has settled in Israel and is involved in developing Judaism here."

Kehilat Ra'anan, founded in 1986, is affiliated to the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism. Montefiore, who works as international marketing manager for Golan Heights Winery and has served as president of the congregation, is a strong advocate for offering a "traditional, but creative" alternative to Orthodoxy and secularism in Israel.

His illustrious family also has a history with progressive Judaism in Britain: Sir Moses' brother Horatio Montefiore was one of the founders of the Reform Movement in 1840; Sir Moses' great-nephew Claude Montefiore founded the liberal movement in 1902 and became the first president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 1926; Claude's son Leonard Montefiore became the first president of the Reform Movement in 1946. Montefiore says his own involvement in Kehilat Ra'anan - and the donation from the testimonial fund - could be viewed as tying up some of old family loose ends.

Montefiore barely knew the Moses Montefiore Testimonial Fund was still operational when he received a letter five years ago from a cousin in England, David Sebag Montefiore, the only family member still a trustee in the fund. The letter suggested a donation toward Kehilat Ra'anan's building fund. Receiving it was a "genuine surprise," recalls Montefiore, who had been actively participating in the synagogue's building campaign by writing to "everyone [he] knew." For bureaucratic reasons, the money has taken some time to arrive at the synagogue, but last month, the synagogue was able to commission a new Torah scroll and a committee has been established to select some 4,000 books covering all aspects of Judaism and Jewish history for the library.

The congregation's elegant new building, which sits on the corner of Pardess Meshutaf and Moshe Dayan streets in Ra'anana, will be officially opened next month. In the meantime, the community, led by Rabbi Tamar Kohlberg, has begun using its facilities - the sanctuary itself, which has fixed seating for 100 but can extend to accommodate 400, a kindergarten, meeting rooms and the library.

Buying a Torah scroll and Jewish books with money from the fund is "very appropriate," says Montefiore. "Sir Moses was a very Orthodox Jew and you can't get two things more central to the life of a synagogue." Other donations from the final allocation of the fund will go toward research for a book about Jerusalem, an Orthodox synagogue and a rehabilitation home for disabled people in Jerusalem.

The testimonial fund was originally set up in 1875 to honor the retirement of Sir Moses, after 40 years as president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, still Anglo Jewry's representative body. Sir Moses requested the funds be used to advance the cause of Jews living in the Holy Land, an area he had contributed to considerably during his lifetime. Earlier monies from the fund helped build Yemin Moshe, one of the five new neighborhoods founded in Jerusalem to commemorate Sir Moses. One of Jerusalem's most famous landmarks, the windmill in Yemin Moshe, reflected Sir Moses' efforts to encourage Jewish labor in the Holy Land - although the windmill itself never worked.

Montefiore describes his ancestor as a "forerunner of political and Labor Zionism." Again the family has other prestigious roots in this area too. Sir Moses' nephew, Sir Francis Montefiore, a confidant of Theodore Herzl, was founder and the first president of the British Zionist Federation in 1899.

His great-great-grandfather Sir Joseph Sebag was vice president of the pre-Zionist movement Hovevei Zion ("Lovers of Zion"), as well as president of the Board of Deputies, and he accompanied Sir Moses on his last two trips to Israel.

"I'm proud of my family name," says Montefiore, "and I admire what Sir Moses did. But I'm very proud of my son, who is in the army here too. There are Montefiores all over the world, but I'm very happy that my children will represent this family in Israel."