How Judah Touro from Rhode Island Shaped the Face of Israel
By: Tamara Upfal Brown student, daughter of an Israeli who resides in Rhode Island.
It is hard to imagine that a small state more than 5,500 miles away played a crucial role in shaping the landscape of Israel. However, when a businessman and philanthropist from Newport, Rhode Island named Judah Touro wrote his estate, he clearly had a vision.
As a successful merchant, Touro lived a simple life serving during the war of 1812, and instead dedicated his collected fortune towards philanthropy. Touro strongly opposed slavery. He also donated to churches, synagogues and other community spaces.
Touro was influenced by British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore and Gershom Kursheedt grandson of the first American-born rabbi, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Both men would work with Touro to devise a plan to provide “relief for the poor Jews of Palestine.” Upon his death in 1854, Touro left $50,000 (or an estimated $9 million today) in his will towards the creation of the first Jewish residential settlement outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. Created in 1860, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, translating to Peaceful Habitation, was built facing Mount Zion atop a hill. Many were pushed to live outside of the walls following an epidemic in the Old City. Nonetheless, the Jews who chose to resettle were brave and often idealistic, as they left the safety and community inside the walls of the Old City. Touro’s investment drastically shaped the trajectory for Jews residing within in Jerusalem. Soon after the founding of the neighborhood, an 18-meter high windmill was put in place for grinding grain into flour, a mark of economic development. It still stands today, as a prominent sight in the landscape of central Jerusalem.
Nowadays, Mishkenot Sha'ananim is a central hub of Jerusalem for art and culture. It has become home to poetry festivals, art exhibitions, and academic lectures. As a result of its secluded location it has also become a location for Israelis and Palestinians to meet and discuss both art and policy matters.
One cannot help but notice that the parallels between Mishkenot Sha'ananim and Rhode Island, also a notable center for art, culture, history, and education. Both with deeply rooted historical narratives, have grown and evolved into centers for artistic exploration and open spaces for thought.
For our Israeli friends, when you come to the states, do not forget to visit Newport Rhode Island and Touro Synagogue, and the grave site of Yehuda Touro. To our Rhode Island friends, when you are visiting Israel, make a point to visit Mishkenot Sha'ananim as both are crucial to the Jewish community in Israel as well as in the Unites States.