(1817 - ?)
In 1848, Gershom Kursheedt of New Orleans wrote to
Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, "I have but one ambition in life,
and that is to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of God and
man." Historian Kenneth Libo observes that "no American did more
in his day to build Jewish congregational life at home … and raise funds
for [the Jews of] Palestine than Gershom Kursheedt."
Born in 1817 in Richmond, Virginia, Gershom Kursheedt
had a distinguished Jewish pedigree. His grandfather was the first
American-born rabbi, Gershom
Mendes Seixas of New York, and his parents were Rabbi Israel Baer
Kursheedt and Sarah Abigail, daughter of Gershom Mendes Seixas. The
seventh of Israel Baer and Sarah Abigails nine children, Gershom is
reported to have absorbed "a passionate love of Jewish learning and a
profound concern for Jewish causes" from both his parents. He was
challenged to put both of these commitments to work when he moved to New
Orleans at age 21 to work in an uncles retail business.
The Jewish community of New Orleans established its
first synagogue, Shanaria-Chasset, in 1828, ten years before Kursheedts
arrival. By that time, the young congregation had fallen to precarious
depths. A German Jewish periodical reported that Shanaria-Chassets
rabbi, Albert "Roley" Marks, was disgracing the community.
This stigma in the ranks of the Jewish ministry
eats whatever comes before his maw, never keeps the feast of Passover,
indeed, has none of his boys circumcised … At Purim, the book
of Esther could not be read since … the rabbi-reader was
preoccupied with his duties as [part-time] fire chief. When challenged
by a pious member of the congregation, the rabbi, beside himself with
wrath, pounded the pulpit and shouted, ‘By Jesus Christ, I have a
right to pray! After his death the rabbis widow, a Catholic, was
restrained only with difficulty from putting a crucifix on his grave.
Considering the situation at Shanaria-Chasset hopeless,
Kursheedt helped organize a new congregation, Nefutzoth Yehudah, which
elected him its first president. To fund construction of a synagogue for
the congregation, Kursheedt turned to one of New Orleanss wealthiest
men, Judah Touro, who until
that time had only weakly identified with his Judaism and had done very
little philanthropically to help is fellow Jews. Kursheedt tutored Touro
into a practicing Jew and Americas first great philanthropist.
Kursheedt persuaded Touro, who was unmarried and
childless, to use his fortune to continue the Jewish traditions so beloved
by Touros father Isaac, hazzan of the synagogue in Newport,
Rhode Island. Kursheedt convinced Judah Touro to purchase an abandoned
neoclassical church in downtown New Orleans and renovate it into a
470-seat sanctuary. On the advice of Kursheedt and Isaac Leeser, Touro
funded the salary of rabbi Moses Nathan to serve the congregation.
Kursheedt made all the arrangements for dedicating the building in 1849
and, according to historian Bertram Korn, the ceremony had a deep impact
on Touro. After the dedication, Touro "seemed to have returned to
Judaism," Korn observed, "in a most determined way. He attended
services regularly, built a schoolhouse next to the synagogue in 1851 and
provided rooms there for Gershom Kursheedt to live."
As part of his commitment to the Jewish community of
New Orleans, Gershom Kursheedt organized the citys Hebrew Benevolent
Society, the forerunner of todays Jewish community federation. A yellow
fever epidemic in 1853 left the Hebrew Benevolent Society with
responsibility for supporting 4 Jewish widows and 20 orphans. Kursheedt
persuaded Touro to fund the construction of a home for Jewish widows and
Before the home could be built, Touro died. Just before
his passing, Kursheedt got Touro to write a will leaving most of his
estate to Jewish causes. Touros bequests were at that time the largest
ever left by an American citizen to charitable institutions. His estate of
$200,000 provided funds for every existing traditional synagogue in
America and $50,000 for the relief of poor Jews in Palestine. Until the
very end, Kursheedt reported that he struggled to get Touro to provide for
these Jewish charities. After Touros death, Kursheedt wrote to Leeser,
"If you knew how I had to work to get that will made … you would
pity me … [There were] arguments, changes and counter-changes in the
sums for institutions, till my heart sickened."
Despite these struggles, Touro named Kursheedt
co-executor with Sir Moses
Montefiore of a $50,000 bequest to the poor Jews of Palestine.
Kursheedt traveled to England to meet with Montefiore, from whence the two
men traveled to Jerusalem, where they could determine how best to use the
Touro bequest. Montefiore proposed constructing a hospital, an idea to
which Kursheedt instantly consented. When the two men returned to
Jerusalem in 1857 they discovered that, in the interim, the Rothschild
family had built such a hospital. The two men determined to build
almshouses for the "worthy" Jewish poor instead. The colony of
houses became the first Jewish neighborhood outside the old walls of the
Montefiore wrote to Kursheedt, "It must be a great
happiness to you to know that with your great influence with the late Mr.
Touro ... you have been the means to directing the eyes and hearts of many
of our Brethren toward the Holy Land and contributing to the welfare of
our coreligionists now dwelling in that land of our Fathers."
Kursheedt had indeed achieved his "one ambition": elevating the
character of his people in the eyes of God and man.
Jewish Historical Society