A beloved Israeli children’s song honors the long and productive life of Sir Moses Montefiore. Released by Yehoram Gaon in 1969, the song imagines a conversation between Sir Moses, the renowned Anglo S&P communal leader and philanthropist, and an angel who repeatedly calls him to heaven. However, each time Sir Moses responds that he isn’t quite ready to go yet, that he still has more to do. The song celebrates Sir Moses and his efforts to help Jews in distress around the world, and in particular his devotion to the city of Jerusalem.
Moses Montefiore first visited the ancient city in 1827. It was an arduous trek from England in the nineteenth century which he ultimately undertook seven times, five of which with his beloved wife Lady Judith. Jerusalem was so dear to him that in 1831 he added its name to his family crest. As we shall see, Sir Moses ultimately left such a mark on the city that his name became part of it too until this day.
Nowhere is Sir Moses’ contribution to Jerusalem more apparent than in the neighbourhood of Mishkinot Sha’ananim which he built in 1860. Mishkanot Sha’ananim was the first Jewish neighbourhood constructed outside of the Old City, and it laid the foundation for the city’s western development which today dominates modern day Yerushalayim. Many of the funds actually came from American Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro who directed the money to Sir Moses for his efforts in the Holy Land.
Sir Moses built Mishkanot Sha’ananim to help ease the overcrowding and squalor of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and to help establish some modern industry to ease the community’s poverty. Two long row houses sit at the foot of a windmill which Montefiore had sent from England so Jerusalem’s Jews could grind their own flour. It still stands out when viewing western Jerusalem – and was refurbished to working condition several years ago.
I was pleased to find a new bag for my talet and tefillin which includes this important landmark on it.
After Montefiore’s death, the neighbourhood constructed adjacent to Mishkanaot Sha’ananim became known as Yemin Moshe, ‘The Right Hand of Moses.’ It included both a Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogue as the Montefiores always had respect for both communities. Lady Judith Montefiore herself was of Ashkenazi heritage, while Sir Moses was of course a Sephardi Jew.
Indeed, in the Old City itself, Montefiore assisted in the rebuilding of the main Ashkenazi synagogue by securing the permission of Egyptian ruler Mohammad Ali in 1855. Originally built by the students of Yehuda HeHasid in the early 18th century, the synagogue was destroyed shortly afterwards in 1721. The reconstruction, finished in 1865, was itself destroyed in 1948 when the fledgling Jewish State lost control of historic Jerusalem. It was known as the Hurva (destroyed) Synagogue before it was finally rebuilt again in 2010.
In 1875 Sir Moses retired from the British Board of Deputies, an organisation which he had headed for decades. At his urging, they took up a collection in his name (the “Sir Moses Montefiore Testimonial Committee”) to continue his building work in Jerusalem. This resulted in the establishment of two new neighbourhoods named in his honour in 1882, Ohel Moshe (‘Tent of Moses’) for Sephardim and Mazkeret Moshe (‘Memorial to Moses’) for Ashkenazim. They are now part of the trendy Jerusalem neighbourhood Nahlaot. An evocative photography installation situated around the Ohel Moshe neighbourhood displays wonderful images of early Sephardic life in the area.
Mishkanot Sha’ananim is now administered by The Jerusalem Foundation. It has become a cultural and learning centre for scholars and students, with spaces for lectures and seminars, and temporary housing for academics researching in Israel. It is home to the Montefiore and Touro restaurants, and its display cabinets showcase some interesting artefacts related to Sir Moses and his trusted aide Dr. Louis Lowe.
Another highlight of a visit to this area is seeing Montefiore’s carriage which he used when travelling through Israel. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a fire in 1986 but a 1990 replica now stands in its place.
It was there that I met a group of students from Ashdod who were visiting the site on a school trip. I shared with them that I am the rabbi of Montefiore’s synagogue in London, and that even until this day his seat is cordoned off as a sign of respect for all he did for the Jewish people. They then began to sing Montefiore’s song for me!
I was pleased to see how nearly 150 years after Sir Moses finally followed the angel to heaven, that the memory of his contributions to the Jewish state lives on.
When Jerusalem Was Sephardic – https://shalommorris.com/2017/07/20/yerushalayim-when-jerusalem-was-sephardic/
Montefiore’s Ramsgate Synagogue – https://shalommorris.com/2016/08/21/the-montefiore-synagogue-ramsgate-england/