Judah Touro was a leading merchant and philanthropist during the early days of our nation, known for benefactions throughout the country, but especially in Louisiana and Rhode Island. Born in 1775 in Newport, Rhode Island, Touro was the second son of Rabbi Isaac Touro, leader of Newport’s synagogue.
Constructed in 1763, and now known as the Touro Synagogue due to the gifts and service of the Touro family, the Newport assembly was the recipient of a famous 1790 letter on religious liberty from George Washington. “The government of the United States,” wrote Washington, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. . . . May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”
As a boy, Judah and his brother were apprenticed to their uncle, one of Boston’s leading Jewish merchants. Judah fell in love with his cousin Catherine, but Judah’s uncle disapproved. In 1801, his hopes of marriage firmly blocked, Judah left for the burgeoning port of New Orleans.
There, he opened a store handling consignments and shipments for colleagues in Boston. His timing was fortuitous. Touro established himself just before the Louisiana Purchase added New Orleans to the growing republic. The young man was ideally positioned to capitalize on the subsequent commercial boom. He traded in soap, candles, codfish, and other goods sent by his contacts in New England, and then invested his profits in ships and New Orleans real estate.
Touro’s assets grew handsomely in value as the Crescent City expanded into one of America’s preeminent urban centers. Within a decade, he was one of the wealthiest men in the entrepot. During the War of 1812, Touro volunteered as a private in the Louisiana Militia. He was seriously wounded in the Battle of New Orleans, and required more than a year to recover from injuries that his doctors initially assumed would be fatal.
Touro remained a devout Jew, although for most of his life he was without a synagogue. When he arrived in New Orleans, his co-religionists in the city could be counted on two hands; as late as 1826, there were no more than a few hundred Jews in all of Louisiana. In 1828, Touro supported the founding of New Orleans’ first synagogue, which after some years divided into separate congregations in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. Touro, by then quite wealthy, gave generously to both congregations and attended the Sephardic gathering. (In 1881, the synagogues merged, 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.
Touro gave liberally and ecumenically. In 1824, he erected a free public library. He purchased a Christian church building and assumed its debts, while allowing the congregation to use the building rent-free in perpetuity. When a friend 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!” He founded a home for the poor, and during a yellow-fever epidemic, he established a hospital. After his death, it became known as Touro Infirmary, and it remains the only nonprofit, faith-based community hospital in New Orleans. Influenced by the abolitionist views of his former Boston employer, he would also purchase slaves in order to manumit them.
Touro’s generosity also extended to his early hometowns of Newport and Boston. In 1840, he gave $10,000 anonymously to complete the long-languishing Bunker Hill Monument. (By nature somewhat bashful and retiring, he briefly considered withdrawing his gift when his anonymity was compromised.) At the dedication ceremonies in 1843, Daniel Webster, antebellum America’s greatest orator, praised Touro and fellow funder Amos Lawrence in verse that is usually credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes:
Amos and Judah—venerated names
Patriarch and prophet press their equal claims.
Like generous coursers running “neck to neck,”
Each aids the work by giving it a check,
Christian and Jews, they carry out one plan,
For though of different faith, each is in heart a Man.
Touro died in 1854. In his will, he bequeathed $500,000 to institutions around the country—more than half of which went to non-Jewish causes. (As a percentage of GDP, these gifts would approximate $2 billion today.) The will includes Touro Synagogue and Touro Infirmary; various benevolent societies and hospitals; orphanages, almshouses, and asylums; libraries and schools; and relief for Jews overseas. According to one contemporary observer, “He gave ten times more than any Christian in the city to aid the cause of Christians in the land of Judaea.”
He also gave thousands of dollars each to 23 Jewish congregations in 14 states—especially the Newport synagogue, where he endowed the cemetery in which he was laid to rest, the final surviving member of the Touro family line. “The last of his name,” reads his tombstone, “he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever.”
~ Evan Sparks