Judah Touro, Friend to Religion

  • Religion
  • 1854

New England merchant Judah Touro set up shop in New Orleans in 1801, and he profited handsomely from the growth of the Crescent City and eventual addition of Louisiana to the United States. This allowed him to become one of the most prolific religious philanthropists of his day.

Although he was without a synagogue for most of his life, Touro remained a devout Jew. When he arrived in New Orleans, his co-religionists in the city could be counted on two hands, and as late as 1826 there were no more than a few hundred Jews in all of Louisiana. In 1828, Touro financed the founding of New Orleans’ first synagogue. When it divided into separate Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations after some years, he gave generously to both groups, while attending the Sephardic gathering. (In 1881 the synagogues merged back together, and today the combined congregation is named for its benefactor.)

Touro also created and funded numerous Jewish relief agencies and Hebrew schools in New Orleans. He gave liberally to Christians, too. At one point he purchased an imperiled Christian church building and assumed its debts, allowing the congregation to use the building rent-free in perpetuity. When a colleague suggested the property might be valuable if sold for commercial purposes, Touro responded, “I am a friend to religion and I will not pull down the church to increase my means!”)

Touro died in 1854. In his will, he bequeathed $500,000 to institutions around the country—more than half of them non-Jewish. (As a percentage of GDP, those gifts would approximate billions of dollars today.) His last testament included crucial support for the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport (see 1763 entry) and the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. He also bequeathed to various benevolent societies, hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, asylums, libraries, schools, and relief efforts for Jews and Christians overseas, especially in Palestine. Touro’s gifts of thousands of dollars each to 23 Jewish congregations in 14 states made him one of his era’s greatest benefactors of his faith.