Biography of Judah Touro

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Judah Touro (1775 - 1854)


     It is possible that Judah Touro gave the Jewish community more money than any benefactor before or after him. This is hard to determine because the dollar has a different value today than it had in the nineteenth century.

     Touro was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of the chazzan of Yeshuah Israel, a Sephardic synagogue. That is the congregation to whom President George Washington addressed a letter in 1790, including the famous phrase “the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, etc.” (Look up the entire letter on your computer).

      The Touro family had come from Portugal to the Netherlands because of the Inquisition, which caused thousands of Jews to go to Protestant countries after 1492, the year of their expulsion. From there the Touros migrated to America before the revolution. Remember that the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was also of Portuguese descent, although he lived in the Netherlands all his life.                     

     Today there is a Touro synagogue in Newport and another Touro synagogue in New Orleans, where Judah settled after the United States acquired the city through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1812, the United States went to war with England. This resulted in the famous battle of New Orleans from December 1814 to January 1815. The battle was fought after the war was over, as both countries had signed the treaty of Ghent before the battle began. Touro volunteered to fight with the American forces commanded by Andrew Jackson, who later became our 7th president.

     Touro was severely wounded but survived, and entered the real estate and other businesses.

      New Orleans was growing rapidly and Touro, a lifelong bachelor, made a great deal of money. Beginning with his fiftieth year, Touro started to give away a fortune. First he donated to the completion of the Bunker Hill monument in Boston, which had been neglected because of lack of funds. He then gave generously to non-Jewish causes, but later funded the synagogues named after him. He also founded a Jewish hospital in New Orleans called the Touro Infirmary.

     Today there is a district in New Orleans called Touro.

     In his will, Touro left $100,000 to the Jewish philanthropies in New Orleans and another $150,000 to 18 Jewish charities around the country. That was an enormous amount of money  in the nineteenth century. He also left a large sum to the Massachusetts General Hospital and other non-Jewish institutions.

     In 1971, a new Jewish college was founded in New York City by Bernard Lander, M.D. called Touro college. It began with 35 students but has now expanded to four campuses. The New York campus has 24,000 students. In addition, there is a campus on Mare Island, about 23 miles from San Francisco in California, which opened in 2002. That campus is devoted to the health related professions and to degrees in education. The campus is closed on Friday afternoon and on the Shabbat and on all Jewish holy days.  It is definitely Jewish, as is the campus in Nevada, which has 1600 students. It was opened in 2004 with 78 medical students. It too is devoted to the health related professions and to education.

     Now plans are under way to expand Touro University to Southern Florida.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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