Who Was Montefiore? Originally Published January 26-27, 2021.

With all the talk about hospitals lately (blessed to have them, wish we didn’t need them), the question came around to who was the namesake for Montefiore Hospital, the “Jewish hospital” in Pittsburgh.

So even though this is neither his birthdate (October 24, 1784, in Livorno, Italy) nor his death date (July 28, 1885 near Ramsgate, Kent, UK), we will take a look at the legacy of Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, Baronet.  Yes, he was almost 101 years old at his passing.  In his younger years he had stood at 6’3” tall.  Yet his outsizedness was much more than just physical.

Moses was the son of Rachel and Joseph Elias Montefiore.  Rachel was the daughter of Abraham Mocatta, who sold bars of precious metals in London.  Joseph was the son of Moses Vital (Haim) Montefiore, who had moved to London in the 1740s but stayed in contact with the rest of the family in Livorno.  Our young Moses was born in London when his folks were on a business trip.  Soon after the family moved there. 

Moses apprenticed with grocers and tea merchants, but was enticed to become a stockbroker (one of then twelve “Jew Brokers” in London) in 1803.  Eventually Moses accumulated a fortune by playing - okay, investing in - the London stock exchange, retired in 1824 (age 40), and went on to help found the Alliance Assurance Company, the Imperial Continental Gas Association (natural gas for street lighting), and the Provincial Bank of Ireland.  In 1837 he was elected sheriff of London (only the second Jew in that position), and in 1847 was made high sheriff of Kent.  He was knighted in 1837 and became a baronet in 1846.  (A baronet is below a baron but above most knights.)  That was his business life.

Moses was taught Hebrew by his mother’s brother.  In 1812, he married Judith Cohen, daughter of Levy Barent Cohen, leading to him being Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s brother-in-law and stockbroker and even business partner.  Also in 1812 Moses became a freemason.  In 1827, Moses and Judith visited the Holy Land, including a few days in Jerusalem, which radically changed his life perspective.  He would soon travel with a personal shohet to keep kosher.  He felt and acted more Jewish.

In 1831 he bought a 24-acre country estate on the East Cliff of Ramsgate, where Queen Caroline had lived when she was Princess of Wales.  Soon thereafter, he bought adjacent land and commissioned his cousin David Mocatta to design a private synagogue, which opened in 1833.  In 1836 he became a governor of Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school, after assisting a dying man with his wife and son.

He served as president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1835 to 1874.  In 1840 he personally appealed to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire to liberate ten Syrian Jews from prison who were arrested under the premise of using Christian blood to make matzah.  As president of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, Moses corresponded with Charles Henry Churchill, British consul in Damascus, in 1841 and 1842, planting the seeds of Zionism.  In 1858 he went to Rome to try to free six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, who had been seized by the Catholic Church after an alleged baptism by a Catholic servant (this was a huge scandal).  In 1846 he went to the Tzar, in 1864 he went to Morocco, and in 1867 to Romania, all with pleas for oppressed Jews.  The knighthood and baronetcy were in recognition of these humanitarian appeals.

Montefiore’s American friend Judah Touro died in 1854, and left money for Jewish residential settlement in Palestine.  Montefiore was executor, and used the funds to create opportunities for productive labor.  In 1855, for instance, he purchased an orchard on the outskirts of Jaffa for agricultural training.  He went on to create many such enterprises there.  In 1839, 1849, 1855, 1866, and 1875, for historic record, he had censuses taken of the Jews in Palestine, including biographical and family information.

In 1873, a local Ramsgate newspaper published his obituary, and Moses wrote a letter to the editor, including, “thank God to have been able to hear of the rumour … and to read an account of the same with my own eyes, without using spectacles.”  He was then only 89, and still very much alive.

Permitted by Queen Victoria to add heraldic animals (“supporters”) to his coat of arms, he wished to honor Jerusalem in the effort, adding a Lion of Judah.  The words say “Think and thank.”

It is said that once he was seated at a dinner next to a piece of anti-Semitic nobility, who said he had just returned from Japan, adding, “where they have neither pigs nor Jews.”  Montefiore responded, “In that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each.”

Montefiore’s last visit to Palestine was in 1875.  He continued making financial charitable contributions until his very death.  He had no children, but left a large legacy nonetheless.