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Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet, FRS (Leghorn, Italy, 24 October 1784 – 28 July 1885) was a British financier and banker, activist, philanthropist and Sheriff of London. Born to an Italian Jewish family, he donated large sums of money to promote industry, business, economic development, education and health amongst the Jewish community in the Levant (modern day Israel), including the founding of Mishkenot Sha'ananim in 1860, the first settlement of the New Yishuv. As President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, his correspondence with the British consul in Damascus Charles Henry Churchill in 1841-42 is seen as pivotal to the development of Proto-Zionism.
Moses Montefiore was born in Leghorn (Livorno in Italian), Italy in 1784, to an Italian Jewish family. His grandfather, Moses Vita (Haim) Montefiore had emigrated from Livorno to London in the 1740s, but retained close contact with the town, then famous for its straw bonnets. Montefiore was born while his parents, Joseph Elias Montefiore and his young wife Rachel, the daughter of Abraham Mocatta, a powerful bullion broker in London, were in the town on a business journey; he was their first child.
The family returned to Kennington in London, where Montefiore went to school and began his career as an apprentice to a firm of grocers and tea merchants. He then entered a counting house in the City of London, and ultimately became one of the twelve "Jew brokers" licensed by the city. His brother Abraham joined him in the business, and their firm gained a high reputation.
In 1812, Moses Montefiore married Judith Cohen (1784–1862), daughter of Levy Barent Cohen. Her sister, Henriette (or Hannah) (1783–1850), married Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777–1836), for whom Montefiore's firm acted as stockbrokers. Nathan Rothschild headed the family's banking business in Britain, and the two brothers-in-law became business partners. Montefiore retired from his business in 1824, and used his time and fortune for communal and civic responsibilities. Physically imposing at 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m), he was elected Sheriff of London in 1837 and served until 1838. He was also knighted that same year by Queen Victoria and received a baronetcy in 1846 in recognition of his services to humanitarian causes on behalf of the Jewish people.
Though somewhat lax in religious observance in his early life, after his first visit to the Holy Land in 1827, he became a strictly observant Jew. He was even in the habit of traveling with a personal shohet (ritual slaughterer), to ensure that he would have a ready supply of kosher meat. Following this shift he exerted a strong influence in limiting the growth of the Reform Jewish movement in England of the time.
In 1831, Montefiore purchased a country estate with twenty-four acres on the East Cliff of the then fashionable seaside town of Ramsgate. The property had previously been a country house of Queen Caroline, when she was still Princess of Wales. It had then been owned by the Marquess Wellesley, a brother of the Duke of Wellington.
Soon afterwards, Montefiore purchased the adjoining land and commissioned his cousin, architect David Mocatta, to design a private synagogue, known as the Montefiore synagogue. It opened with a grand public ceremony in 1833.
Montefiore died in 1885, at age 100. He had no known children and his principal heir in both name and property was a nephew, Joseph Sebag Montefiore.
After retiring from business in 1824, Montefiore devoted the rest of his exceptionally long life to philanthropy. He was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1835–1874, a period of 39 years, the longest tenure ever, and member of Bevis Marks Synagogue. As President, his correspondence with the British consul in Damascus Charles Henry Churchill in 1841-42 is seen as pivotal to the development of Proto-Zionism.
In business, he was an innovator, investing in the supply of piped gas for street lighting to European cities via the Imperial Continental Gas Association. He was among the founding consortium of the Alliance Life Assurance Company, and a Director of the Provincial Bank of Ireland. Highly regarded in the City, he was elected as Sheriff of the City of London in 1836, and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1837.
From retirement until the day he died, he devoted himself to philanthropy, particularly alleviating the distress of Jews abroad. He went to the Sultan of Turkey in 1840 to liberate from prison ten Syrian Jews of Damascus arrested after a blood libel; to Rome in 1858 to try to free the Jewish youth Edgardo Mortara, baptised by his Catholic nurse and kidnapped by functionaries of the Catholic Church; to Russia in 1846 and 1872; to Morocco in 1864 and to Romania in 1867. It was these missions that made him a folk hero of near mythological proportions among the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Levant.
Montefiore is mentioned in Charles Dickens' diaries, in the personal papers of George Eliot, and in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. It is known that he had contacts with non-conformists and social reformers in Victorian England. He was active in public initiatives aimed at alleviating the persecution of minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, and he worked closely with organisations that campaigned for the abolition of slavery. A Government loan raised by the Rothschilds and Montefiore in 1835 enabled the British Government to compensate plantation owners and thus abolish slavery in the Empire.
Montefiore's 100th birthday was celebrated as a national event in Britain and by Jews around the world. His birthdays, activities, and death were closely covered in the British press of the time.
Montefiore’s life was also bound up with the town of Ramsgate, Kent, on the southeastern coast of England. In the 1830s he and Judith had bought East Cliff Lodge, a country estate (then) adjacent to the town, very much in the manner of the Victorian Jewish gentry. He played an important role in Ramsgate affairs, and one of the local ridings still bears his name. In 1845 he served as High Sheriff of Kent In 1873 a local newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary. "Thank God to have been able to hear of the rumour," he wrote to the editor, "and to read an account of the same with my own eyes, without using spectacles." Average British life expectancy in Montefiore's time was less than 50 years.
The town celebrated his 99th and his 100th birthday in great style, and every local charity (and church) benefited from his philanthropy. At East Cliff Lodge, he established a Sephardic yeshiva (Judith Lady Montefiore College) after the death of his wife in 1862. On the grounds he built the elegant, Regency architecture Montefiore Synagogue and mausoleum modeled on Rachel's Tomb outside Bethlehem (whose refurbishment and upkeep he had paid for). Judith was laid to rest there in 1862, and Montefiore himself was buried there in 1885. In recent years, the site has become a source of controversy as real-estate developers are eyeing it for commercial development.
The estate was sold to the Borough of Ramsgate around 1952, and the Lodge was demolished in 1954. All that remains today is a new building housing a firm of architects which incorporates parts of the original structure. Called the Coach House. There are also some outbuildings (including the Gate House) and the Italianate Greenhouse has been restored to its former glory in recent years. The Greenhouse and the rest of the estate has been turned into King George VI Memorial Park. On the Gate House, is a plaque to Sir Moses.
Jewish philanthropy and the Holy Land were at the center of Montefiore's interests. He traveled there by carriage and by ship seven times, sometimes accompanied by his wife. He visited there in 1827, 1838, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1866, and 1875. In Montefiore's time, these voyages were arduous and not without danger. He made his last journey there at the age of 91.
Although Montefiore only spent a few days in Jerusalem, the 1827 visit changed his life. He resolved to increase his religious observance and to attend synagogue on Shabbat, as well as Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah is read. While his observance of Jewish law was not as strict in his younger years (evidenced by Judith’s descriptions of the meals they enjoyed in inns along the south coast of England on their honeymoon in 1812), from then on, he lived a life of piety and Jewish observance.
In 1854 his friend Judah Touro, a wealthy American Jew, died having bequeathed money to fund Jewish residential settlement in Palestine. Montefiore was appointed executor of his will, and used the funds for a variety of projects aimed at encouraging the Jews to engage in productive labor. In 1855, he purchased an orchard on the outskirts of Jaffa that offered agricultural training to the Jews.
In 1860, he built the first Jewish residential settlement and almshouse outside the old walled city of Jerusalem, today known as Mishkenot Sha'ananim. This became the first settlement of the New Yishuv. Living outside the city walls was dangerous at the time, due to lawlessness and bandits. Montefiore offered financial inducement to encourage poor families to move there. Later on, Montefiore established adjacent neighborhoods south of Jaffa Road, the Ohel Moshe neighborhood for Sephardic Jews and the Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood for Ashkenazi Jews.
Montefiore donated large sums of money to promote industry, education and health amongst the Jewish community in Palestine. The project, bearing the hallmarks of nineteenth century artisanal revival, aimed to promote productive enterprise in the Yishuv. The builders were brought over from England. These activities were part of a broader program to enable the Old Yishuv to become self-supporting in anticipation of the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Montefiore built the Montefiore Windmill in Yemin Moshe to provide cheap flour to poor Jews, a printing press and textile factory, and helped to finance several Bilu agricultural colonies. He also attempted to acquire arable land for Jewish cultivation, but was hampered by Ottoman restrictions on land sale to non-Muslims. The Jews of Old Yishuv referred to their patron as "ha-Sar Montefiore" (Minister Montefiore), a title perpetuated in Hebrew literature and song.
A major source of information about the Yishuv, or Jewish community in Palestine during the 19th century is a sequence of censuses commissioned by Montefiore, in 1839, 1849, 1855, 1866 and 1875. The censuses attempted to list every Jew individually, together with some biographical and social information (such as their family structure, place of origin, and degree of poverty).
The Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York is named for him. On the second floor of the East Wing (Silver Zone, North Building/Foreman Pavilion), there is a bust of Montefiore. The nose on the bust is still a bright polished brass because many will rub the nose as they pass for luck. A branch of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania also bears his name. Chicago's West Side is home to a reform school of higher education, Moses Montefiore Academy, named in honor of him.
A number of synagogues were named in honor of Sir Moses, including the 1913 Montifiore Institute, now preserved as the Little Synagogue on the Prairie, Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington, Illinois, Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland and Temple Moses Montefiore in Marshall, Texas, the first Reform temple in East Texas.
Montefiore was renowned for his quick and sharp wit. A popularly-circulated anecdote, possibly apocryphal, relates that at a dinner party he was once seated next to a nobleman who was known to be an anti-Semite. The nobleman told Montefiore that he had just returned from a trip to Japan, where "they have neither pigs nor Jews." Montefiore is reported to have responded immediately, "in that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each" (a similar anecdote is told of Israel Zangwill.)
According to Arthur Charles Fox-Davies in Armorial Families, Montefiore's blazon reads as follows: Argent, a cedar tree between two mounts of flowers proper, on a chief azure, a dagger erect proper, Pommel and hilt or, between two mullets of six points gold. Mantling—vert and argent. Crest—On a wreath of the colours, two mounts as in the arms, therefrom issuant a demi-lion or, supporting a flagstaff proper, thereon hoisted a forked pennant flying towards the sinister azure, inscribed "Jerusalem" in Hebrew characters gold. Motto—"Think and thank." Supporters—According to a Royal Warrant, 10 Dec. 1886, to descend with Baronetcy, Dexter, a lion guardant or; sinister, a stag proper attired or, each supporting a flagstaff proper, therefrom flowing a banner to the dexter azure, inscribed "Jerusalem" in Hebrew characters gold.
The Queen has granted to Mr. Joseph SEBAG, nephew and residuary legatee of the late Sir Moses MONTEFIORE, and his successor in the East Cliff estate, Ramsgate, her Royal license to use the surname of MONTEFIORE after his own paternal name, and to bear Sir M. Montefiore's arms.
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