Passing of Judah Touro, 1854
On This Day in Jewish History: January 18, 1854
On this day, 1854, Jewish-American philanthropist Judah Touro passed away. His work as a prominent merchant and his investment in real estate allowed him to substantially contribute to secular institutions, Jewish congregations, and relief efforts for Jews in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. He is remembered for giving such a large sum to so many individual causes, work that was unprecedented and never surpassed by an American Jew.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Judah was the son of Isaac Touro who served as hazzan (cantor) of the Sephardic Yeshuat Israel synagogue, later named the Touro Synagogue. His grew up at the height of the American Revolution, which left his family poverty-stricken and ultimately on a boat set for Jamaica. It wasn’t until 1783 that Judah and his family returned to America.
A failed relationship in Boston, which was his home at the time, led him to move to New Orleans in the first few years of the 19th century. The city had only recently been acquired by the U.S. under the Louisiana Purchase. Here, he began his career as a merchant and shipper. For a time, he was very successful, acquiring a great fortune for himself. But shortly thereafter, as America became involved in the War of 1812, Judah enlisted as a volunteer soldier in the U.S. army. His time serving ended rather severely with near-fatal injuries. After a lucky return to health, he returned to living a modest life, inspired by his experience with poverty as a child. He invested in real estate but prided himself in spending little of his fortune, which he was later able to donate.
Before his involvement with Jewish causes, Judah contributed to projects benefiting the American people. He gave a large sum to aid the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, as well as to support a public library in Newport where he grew up. It was his relationship with Jewish leaders Gershom Kurdsheedt and Rabbi Isaac Lester that led to Judah’s choice to become involved with Jewish charities. He helped found the Sephardic synagogue Nefuzoth Yehuda in New Orleans, which he became a congregant of. Around the same time, he founded the city’s only Jewish hospital, the Touro Infirmary. It still stands today. . Sadly, Judah passed away on this day in 1854, and he was buried in the cemetery of Touro Synagogue with his family back in Newport
However, his death did not occur before he was able to write a will donating most of his fortune to various Jewish organizations, leaving only a small portion for family. New Orleans’ leading Jewish congregations each received generous $100,000 donations, and $150,000 was shared among Jewish institutions throughout America. $60,000 of his were used to promote the welfare of Ottoman-controlled Palestine’s Jews. In his name, a Jewish education center in Philadelphia was founded, along with a Touro College in New York state and the Judah Touro Scholarship at New Orleans’ Tulane University.