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Judah Touro

TOURO, JUDAH (1775–1854), U.S. philanthropist. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, to Isaac Touro (d. 1873), the ḥazzan of the Yeshuat Israel synagogue, and his wife Reyna, sister of the merchant Moses Michael Hays, Touro had a troubled childhood. The Revolutionary War shattered the prosperity and unity of the Jewish community of Newport. Isaac Touro, a Tory, went with the British to New York City where he lived on a military dole and, in 1782, to Jamaica, British West Indies, where he officiated for a brief time until his death the following year. Touro's widowed mother returned to New England with her four children and took up residence with her wealthy brother. Judah was trained in his uncle's mercantile business, and undertook a number of voyages in his uncle's interest.

In 1801 Touro left Boston for New Orleans. Legend attributes this departure to his uncle's refusal to permit him to marry a cousin, but there is no sure evidence of this. Touro's choice of New Orleans as a center of commercial operations was a fortunate one. Still in Spanish hands at the time of his arrival, the port was soon transferred to France and then sold by Napoleon to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The population and trade of the city grew in geometric proportions, and Touro and other early merchants prospered greatly. Touro served as a civilian volunteer in the American army at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and was severely wounded. His life was saved by his close friend, the Virginia merchant Rezin Shepherd, who was ultimately an executor and residual legatee of Touro's estate. After his recovery Touro took no part in the civic or social life of New Orleans, in contradistinction to an active interest during prior years; some reports indicate that the wound, which left him with a limp and damaged his sexual organs, was the reason for his withdrawal from social relations with any but a few close friends. His business activities continued unabated, however, and his holdings increased. He was a commission merchant who accepted shipments on consignment from firms in the North, which were then sold for the benefit of the owners. He also invested in steamships and other vessels. At no time, however, was he a major mercantile power in New Orleans. He accumulated his fortune through prudent investments in real estate and through his modest standard of living. He said to Rabbi Isaac *Leeser that he had "saved a fortune by strict economy, while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures." He was not a speculator like many of his New Orleans colleagues, and, as a result, easily weathered the periodic panics and depressions which drove many other New Orleans business houses into bankruptcy.

Touro, a reticent, shy, and even peculiar man, took no interest in Jewish matters until late in life; he made only a modest contribution to the first New Orleans congregation, which was founded in 1827, but did not join as a member. The first person with a sense of Jewish responsibility to penetrate his shell of indifference and reserve was Gershom Kursheedt, who arrived in New Orleans in 1839 or 1840, and ultimately succeeded in arousing Touro's feelings of Jewish loyalty. He, and possibly Rezin Shepherd, persuaded Touro to purchase an old Episcopal church for the benefit of a new congregation which Kursheedt organized, Nefutzoth Yehudah, and to pay for its conversion into a synagogue. Kursheedt was also responsible for Touro's bequests, in his famous will, to a host of Jewish institutions. Among these were $108,000 to congregations and societies in New Orleans, and to the Jewish hospital which Touro had founded and which has ever since carried his name; $10,000 for the upkeep of the synagogue and cemetery in Newport, his old home; $60,000 for the relief of the poor in Ereẓ Israel to be used at the discretion of Sir Moses Montefiore; a total of $143,000 to congregations, schools, and other Jewish institutions in 17 cities throughout the land. Gifts to non-Jewish institutions in New Orleans, Boston, and Newport totaled $153,000. No American Jew had ever given so much to so many agencies and causes; nor had any non-Jew done so much in such varied ways.


L. Huhner, The Life of Judah Touro (1946); M.A. Gutstein, A. Lopez and Judah Touro (1939); idem, The Touro Family in Newport (1935), 23–38; idem, The Story of the Jews of Newport (1936), index; J.B. Feibelman, New Orleans Jewish Community (1941), 77–78; M.J. Kohler, in: A.J. Karp (ed.), The Jewish Experience in America, 2 (1969), 158–76.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.