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 Abigail’s 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 uncle’s retail business.
The Jewish community of New Orleans established its first synagogue, Shanaria-Chasset, in 1828, ten years before Kursheedt’s arrival. By that time, the young congregation had fallen to precarious depths. A German Jewish periodical reported that Shanaria-Chasset’s 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 rabbi’s 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 Orleans’s 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 America’s first great philanthropist.
Kursheedt persuaded Touro, who was unmarried and childless, to use his fortune to continue the Jewish traditions so beloved by Touro’s 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 city’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, the forerunner of today’s 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 orphans.
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. Touro’s 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 Touro’s 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 city.
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.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society