When Judah Touro died in 1854, his famous will left bequests to Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. The monies left were the largest ever given by anybody at that time.
He was born in 1775 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the son of Isaac Touro, the hazzan of the Yeshuat Israel Synagogue, and his wife Reyna nee Hays. Judah had an unhappy and troubled childhood because the Revolutionary War had shattered the prosperity and security of the Jewish community of Newport.
His father, Isaac, was a Tory and he went with the British to New York where he lived on a military dole. In 1782, the family moved to Jamaica, British West Indies, where after a brief time, Isaac Touro died. Judah and his mother and the other four children moved to New York City where they lived with his uncle, Moses Michael Hays, a wealthy businessman.
After training and experience in his uncle's business, Judah went to New Orleans which was still ruled by Spain. He apparently made the right choice in moving there and going into business. The city was soon transferred to the French, who in turn sold it to the United States. Soon after, the population and industry grew rapidly and his fortunes rose.
Touro served as a civilian volunteer in the American Army during the War of 1812. The final action of the war was at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, after the British had signed a peace treaty. General Jackson defeated the British forces in this battle.
Judah Touro was severely wounded and his life was saved by his good friend, Rezin Shepard, a Virginia merchant. His recovery was slow and Touro was left with a limp. He dropped out of the social life in New Orleans as he became more engrossed in developing his business. Touro invested in steamships and in real estate.
He once told Rabbi Isaac Leeser that he "made a fortune by strict economy while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures." Touro was not a speculator and he was able to weather the severe periods of panics and depressions.
Touro had no sense of Jewish responsibility until Gershom Kursheedt, a recent newcomer to New Orleans, instilled in him a feeling of Jewish loyalty. Rezin Shepard and Kursheedt had persuaded Touro to buy an Episcopalian church which was converted into a synagogue called Nefutzoth Yehuda. Gershom Kursheedt was a tremendous influence on Judah Touro. He was largely responsible for Touro's large bequests to institutions and organizations which were made when he died.
He left $108,000 to Jewish congregations and societies and to the Touro Hospital; $ 10,000 for the upkeep of the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery; $60,000 to be used for the poor in Eretz Israel; another total of $140,000 to Jewish institutions in seventeen cities.
He was also very generous to non-Jewish institutions. His gifts to them totaled $153,000. When he died in 1854, his bequests were made to all recipients. Judah Touro was the first American Jew to ever give so much to Jewish and Non-Jewish organizations and institutions. He will always be remembered as a philanthropist and soldier.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011