Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) was a man whose genius for investment banking made him wealthy enough to retire by the age of 40. He devoted the remainder of his life to philanthropy and securing the political and civil emancipation of Jews in England. He also worked to alleviate discriminatory practices against European and Middle Eastern Jews.
At a time when Jewish children were being taken from their parents and secretly baptized into Christianity, a time when the Jews of the Middle East were detained as prisoners for no just cause, Montefiore became a crusader for their rights. His hope to establish a homeland for Jews led to the founding of several agricultural settlements outside of the old city of Jerusalem. An independent Israel was nearly 65 years away from the time of his death in 1885; but his efforts for the Zionist cause, that of a separate Jewish state, lay crucial groundwork toward a successful and bountiful economy for Jews settling there. Montefiore was a man true to England, and true to his faith in a world that often actively sought to destroy it.
Moses Haim Montefiore was born on October 24, 1784, while his parents were in Leghorn, Italy on business. The son of Moses Haim and Rachel Lumbroso de Mattos Mocatta, Montefiore entered the world at the home of his great uncle and godfather, Moses Haim Racah. He would be the first of eight children. The Montefiore family had resided in Italy since the sixteenth century. Montefiore's grandfather, Moses Vita Montefiore was a merchant who settled in England in 1758. He lay the groundwork for the fortune and the social standing that the family would enjoy in England for the next two centuries. The Mocatta family, whose origins were also Italian, had settled in Holland but went to England at the invitation of William of Orange.
As a child, Montefiore began to make catalogs. His habit of keeping a diary of daily work and adding a quotation or some poetry was continued throughout his entire life. One of Montefiore's favorite biblical quotations from the Book of Proverbs, "Fear the Lord and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change," was a principle to which he adhered when following the mores of English middle class society. Following his early schooling in Kensington, Montefiore became an apprentice to a firm of grocers and tea merchants. By the age of 20, he would enter into the world of the London Stock Exchange, one of only 12 Jewish men who were allowed this privilege. The business he shared with his brother Abraham collapsed after two and a half years, when a colleague proved mistrustful and fled the country. Financially ruined, he worked cautiously to repay his debts and gradually amassed a fortune.
Montefiore married Judith Cohen on June 10, 1810. She was the daugher of Levi Barenth Cohen, considered to be the wealthiest Jew in England, and probably the world. Each of them was nearly 28 when they married. This was the wedding of an Ashkenazi, or German, Jew to a Sephardic, or Spanish Jew. The Montefiore marriage represented a perfect union of the two groups. When Judith died on September 24, 1862, they had shared more than 50 years together. According to Myrtle Franklin and Michael Bor in their book, Sir Moses Montefiore, "Moses' marriage to Judith was the most important event in his life. They shared the devoted care in the observance of the practices and customs of their religion. She became the inspiration behind his bold and perspicacious missions that made him a major figure in Jewish history, rather than merely a wealthy financier, and shared all the risks and dramas in travelling abroad."
Although Judith and he did not have children, Montefiore reportedly had a son by his London housekeeper, Louisa Thoroughgood Walden, which she agreed to name Joseph. He was born on April 2, 1863, and declared as illegitimate at the Registrar. The father was not named. Montefiore's son, who grew up in an orphanage, was visited regularly by his father who took him gifts and arranged for his apprenticeship as a master plumber and gas fitter. Not until he neared his death on April 7, 1922 did Joseph Walden reveal to his son, George, the closely guarded secret of his birth. Whether or not Montefiore provided further for his son financially was a truth he took with him to his grave.
Montefiore intended to show his loyalty to England in a public way. As a handsome young man of 6 feet 3 inches, and from a family of pristine distinction, Montefiore volunteered for the local militia in 1809. He became a captain in the Surrey Militia from 1810 until 1814. For 30 to 40 days each year militia members served in active duty, which consisted primarily of learning to play the bugle and studying the French language.
Montefiore's connection to the Rothschild family, known for its wealth and influence on banking throughout Europe, began in 1812 when he became Nathan Mayer Rothschild's stockbroker. Rothschild had married Hannah Cohen, the sister of Montefiore's wife Judith, in 1806. His work as a stockbroker led him to achieve great prosperity. Franklin and Bor note that, "Moses' diaries are crammed with references to rumors of war, the health of kings and emperors, governments' policies, house calls on royalty and cabinet members, and entries on international politics and conflicts between nations." Such was the crux of an investment banker's work, ever dependent on the changing economy and society around him. "His last major business transaction was the most significant," say Franklin and Bor, when, "in 1835, the successful contracting of the 20 million pound loan by Rothschild and Montefiore for the compensation to owners of freed slaves, enabling the British government to carry the Slave Emancipation Act into effect." Within a year of his brother Abraham's death in August 1824, Montefiore had retired from his business activities on a full-time basis.
Montefiore began what would be his full-time work of philanthropy. He also served his country in the political arena in a variety of ways, many of them related to Jewish interests. At his new London home at 35 Park Lane (later 99 Park Lane), Montefiore put together his own ideas for the solution of local Jewish problems. In 1830, Montefiore and his wife purchased a country home at Ramsgate, East Cliff Lodge, and made it the center of Jewish life in England. His cousin, David Mocatta, was the architect who designed the synagogue, which was dedicated on June 16, 1833.
Montefiore's trip to the Holy Land and old city of Jerusalem in 1827 would exert a profound effect upon his life. He became a strictly observant Jew, always travelling with his own "shohet," the person charged with slaughtering animals in accordance with Jewish law. Travelling around the world, especially throughout the Mediterranean and countries of Asia and North Africa in the 19th century was difficult and often life threatening. His wife's fragile health did not prevent her from going with her husband, even if it often meant long and tedious travel. Their journey to Jerusalem had taken five and a half months by land, sea, and horseback. In her journal three days after their arrival, Judith Montefiore expressed her feelings by writing, "Many were the solemn thoughts which rose in our minds, finding ourselves thus engaged in this holy land: the country of our ancestors, of our religion, and of our former greatness; but now, alas! Of persecution and oppression." Montefiore witnessed the desolation of a poor, if pious, life among his fellow Jews, and was determined to find ways to help them.
Montefiore was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838, only a year after being named sheriff of London and Middlesex. The assistance he provided for England in key financial matters earned the gratitude of his Queen. Upon completing his term as sheriff in 1840, Montefiore embarked upon a trip to Egypt and the city of Damascus. Due to the unexplained disappearance of a Franciscan friar named Father Thomas in Damascus, prominent Jews were accused of murder and a period of brutal persecution followed. Montefiore was asked to intervene. He was able to effect a compromise with the Moslems and Christians that resulted in the release of Jewish prisoners, allowing them to return to their homes. Montefiore provided assistance in other such incidents, including one with Emperor Nicholas of Russia regarding the persecution of Jews in Poland and Lithuania. In 1863, he traveled to Morocco in order to plead for the Sultan's protection of the Jews in the Mussulman state.
When Montefiore died in London on July 28, 1885, at the age of 101, he was praised from all quarters. His legacy included the liberation of countless Jews from persecution, the construction of new hospitals, a school for girls in Jerusalem, and countless other projects. Montefiore's companion and personal secretary, Dr. L. Loewe, wrote of his friend by saying, "Sir Moses had fought so sturdily in youth the battle of life, and afterwards devoted himself with such unwearying ardor to the task of combating hatred, persecution, and fanaticism, of severing the bonds of physical and moral slavery, and of aiding in the establishment of religious toleration all over the world. His unparalleled devotion to the sacred cause of humanity in general, and the unclouded halo of a spotless integrity which encircles his name, will ever afford a splendid example for emulation no less than the dauntless courage with which he set to work for the rescue of the suffering and oppressed."
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