Moses Montefiore


Moses Montefiore


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Think and Thank

By George Kahodis

"Think and Thank" (the motto of Moses Montefiore)

What do most people desire? Money, fame, honor, family harmony? All of these were found in one man, Moses Montefiore. He was a man who embodied not just some of the values that we desire, but all of them.

Moses Montefiore was born in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy on October 24, 1784. Moses Montefiore's grandfather, Moses Vita Montefiore, had emigrated to London. Family and business ties were kept with Italy, and on a visit there by his parents, Moses was born. Young Moses spent just the first few months of his life there, but none the less he returned there many times later in life and gave generous grants for various matters, including building a synagogue.

Young Moses received a rudimentary Jewish education in addition to a secular education. He was first apprenticed to a firm of wholesale grocers and tea merchants. At that time the number of Jewish stockbrokers in London was limited to twelve, yet at just over the age of twenty, he succeeded in securing for himself an Exchange License. He quickly established a good reputation and was joined by his brother Abraham in the company, 'Montefiore Bros'.

At this time he joined a militia in defense of England and reached the rank of captain. It was during this period that he met and married Judith Cohen, the daughter of Levi Barenth Cohen, one of the richest English Jews in his days. They were both 28 years of age. Their marriage was particularly happy and they lived together for fifty years with the closest intimacy and warmth. The Montefiores had no children. Lady Judith died in 1862 when she was 78, a few months after the celebration of their golden wedding anniversary. Moses Montefiore outlived his wife, dying in 1885 at the age of 101.

Of his marriage he wrote in his diary:

    "On this happy day, the 10th of June, thirty-two years have passed since the Almighty G-d of Israel, in His great goodness blessed me with my dear Judith, and for ever shall I be most truly grateful for this blessing, the great cause of my happiness through life. From the first day of our happy union to this hour, I have had every reason of increased love and esteem, and truly may I say, each succeeding year has brought with it greater proofs of her admirable character. A better and kinder wife never existed, one whose whole study has been to render her husband good and happy."

Both Sir Moses and Lady Judith were strictly orthodox in their Judaism. Their diaries contain frequent references to the daily prayer. They observed the holidays and abstained from work on the Sabbath. Lady Judith wrote in her diary in 1812, a little after her marriage:

    "I don't know any circumstances more pleasing to me than to perceive that my dear Monte in religiously inclined. It is that sort of religion which he possesses that in my opinion is most essential - a fellow feeling and benevolence."

On his many trips abroad he took with him his personal Shochet, (ritual slaughterer). He would insist on bringing his own dishes and food to banquets so that he could eat kosher food. When his business profited and the Montefiores moved to their home in Ramsgate, Moses had a beautiful synagogue built adjacent to their home.

Lady Judith's sister was married to Nathan Mayer Rothschild. Being brother-in-law to the famed Rothschild widened the circle of his affairs and he acquired a considerable fortune. In addition to his work in the Stock Exchange, he threw his talents into other enterprises. He founded the Imperial Gas Association and the Alliance Insurance Company. He became a member of the board of director of many other companies such as the Alliance British and Foreign Life, the Alliance Marine Insurance Company, the Provincial Bank of Ireland, the Imperial Brazilian Mining Company, the Chilean and Peruvian Mining Company, the Irish Manufacturing Company and the British Colonial Silk Company.

In 1824, upon reaching the age of forty, Moses Montefiore, with the full approval and encouragement of his wife, decided to retire from his business career and dedicate all of his energies to social and philanthropic work. He dedicated his time and his assets to the cause of his fellow Jews. For the next 61 years of his life he was to pursue the defense and rights of Jews, to assist and sponsor philanthropic deeds not only of Jews but also of men of all creeds.

Jews were at that time allowed to be elected to the Parliament. However, to be admitted they were required to take an oath on the Christian Bible using the wording in the oath that they would uphold the office "as a true Christian". Through Moses Montefiore and Nathan Mayer Rothschild's untiring efforts over many years, the requirement was changed to suit the Jews.

The ritual murder accusations were not a thing of the past. Although various Popes had refuted the accusation, yet the calumny of ritual murder belongs to the class of prejudices which defy time. In 1840, Father Tomaso, who had practiced medicine in Damascus and was especially noted for his vaccinations, disappeared mysteriously together with his servant. The Jews were accused of the alleged murder. This caused a savage wave of arrests and tortures of Jews, house breaking in the Jewish quarter, open incitement, hatred and calls for extermination of Jews. Torture claimed two Jews; a third Jew, a barber "confessed" and accused some of the leaders of the Jewish community of the crime. Simultaneously, an astrologer informed the authorities that he had discovered the murderers and produced a list of seven Jewish names, including two from the best known families of the community. In order to curtail the nightmare of unbearable tortures, two of the arrested Jews embraced Islam as a means to regaining their freedom. A plaque was put on the grave of Father Tomaso attesting to the "fact" that he was murdered by Jews.

Moses Montefiore, accompanied by his wife and several other dignitaries and assistants traveled to speak to world leaders to pressure Mohamed Ali in Egypt and the Sultan in Constantinople to ease the pressure upon the Jewish community. At this same period of time, war broke out between Mohamed Ali and the Sultan, yet this did not prevent Moses Montefiore from traveling to Constantinople to speak with the Sultan. The Sultan consented and issued a Firman decrying the false blood libels. On his return, he was refused audience with the Pope, but gave a copy of the Firman to the Pope through a Cardinal. Moses Montefiore requested that the plaque be removed. It was to take much perseverance and time on Moses Montefiore's part to have the erroneous plaque removed.

Moses Montefiore traveled throughout the world on many occasions trying to improve the conditions of his fellow Jews. He traveled to Russia to meet Czar Nicholas I, who received him warmly and gave promises that he would not allow Jews to suffer because of their religion. During his travels he was received warmly by many heads of states.

In his travels to Morocco to help alleviate the suffering of the Jews, he was given an escort by a Royal Navy vessel. He was carried for eight days (not on the Sabbath) in a chair, through the heat of the African summer, until he reached Marrakesh. He was met by the Sultan who accorded him the honors due to a prince. After the meeting the Sultan issued a Firman reading in part:

    "It is our command that all Jews residing within our dominions, being  the condition in which the Almighty G-d has placed them, shall be treated by our Governors, Administrators and all other subjects in a manner conformable with the evenly balanced scales of Justice…and that the Jews shall enjoy more security than heretofore, while the fear to injure them shall be greatly increased."

Moses Montefiore was to make many trips to various communities where he was received with honor and dignity accorded to royalty. He was elected Sheriff of London and honored by the queen with the title of Sir. But for the Jews it was his deep and lasting connection with Eretz Israel that gave him the highest honor and accord in our hearts and history.

It was not until 1827 that he undertook his first of seven visits to Israel. After a long journey to Egypt sailing in convoy with four other boats they reached Egypt. From there they rented another ship which took them to Jaffa. From Jaffa they traveled to Ramleh where they spent the night. On the next day, at five in the afternoon, as they spotted the first sight of the city of Jerusalem, they stopped to recite special prayers in memory of the destruction of the Temple.

The Montefiores spent three days and four nights in the Holy City listening to the plight of the local Jewish population. They visited the Wailing Wall (the Kotel, the remains of Solomon's Temple) and the Tomb of Rachel. The Governor of Jerusalem received them and let them know that he deplored their having to stay at a Jewish home since an apartment in a convent was made available to them. Sir Moses wrote in his diary, "I hope I shall ever live and die in the society of my brethren of Israel."

The Montefiores spent a total of only nine days in the land of Israel, yet the trip became a landmark and turning point in their lives. They began to plan a second visit but it was not until twelve years later, in 1839 that they were able to actualize their plan. This time they were able to spend two months in Eretz Israel. They visited the four holy cities; Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias.

Moses Montefiore was not content with distributing subsidies; he wished to ascertain the goodwill of the Jews living there and their ability to engage in productive work, particularly in agriculture. He received a number of correspondences from the Rabbis and leaders of the different communities, all in favor of some form of productive work.

On his way back he had an audience with Muhammad Ali to whom he presented his proposal to purchase land and set up an economic basis of living in Israel. He received promises, that, due to  political intrigue were prevented from being instituted.

One of his projects was to build a hospital to serve the needs of the ancient city. He solicited funds from around the world. Judah Touro, the first millionaire and philanthropist of the United States donated a large amount of money ($50,000 in 1852!) to be available to Moses Montefiore's use in Jerusalem. This hospital was completed in 1856 with additional funds from the Rothschilds.

In 1855, the Montefiores made another visit. This time Sir Moses founded a girls' school to teach practical occupations such as dress making, etc. One hundred and forty four girls applied immediately to the school. The most important aspect of this trip was his acquisition of land. He acquired the land outside the wall which was called Mishkanot Shananan (the Serene Abode) but was later changed to its present name, Yemin Moshe (Moses' Right Hand). This was the first living quarter outside the Old City walls.

It took much time to obtain a building permit from the Sultan. Building began in 1860. At first no one was willing to endanger their lives by living outside the protection of the walled city. But Moses Montefiore encouraged families to move there and built a wind-powered mill to grind flour. Each house had a small plot of ground to encourage self-dependency and agriculture. During the first years, Sir Moses followed each detail of the community attending to all of the needs of the residents. Two synagogues were built there, one for the Ashkenazim and the other for the Sephardim.

On the land he purchased near Jaffa, the first Jewish orchards were developed. After his last journey to Israel in 1866 he wrote an essay entitled "Narrative of a Forty Days' Sojourn in the Holy Land". In this document he prophetically describes the future problems that he envisioned.

"A great struggle might in some future day arise, even in Jerusalem, between the Progressive party - those who did not come to the Holy Land from religious motives, but from reasons connected with special circumstances - and the strictly Conservative party, whose sole object in coming to Jerusalem was the preservation of their religion."

Although in this essay only a few of the many accomplishments of Moses Montefiore are cited, it must be stressed that, due to this single individual who dedicated his life to the betterment of his brethren, multitudes of institutions and neighborhoods were built. Through his generosity and foresight, the Jewish population began to develop the ability to become self-dependent.

It would be another essay to enumerate all the honors and positions that this noble man was given. Until his death in 1885 at the age of 101, he actively continued to help his fellow Jew.

May his name continue to be a blessing and source of inspiration for all.


from the July 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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