He was a leader of his people; spent much time in Egypt and the desert; wandered incessantly; is associated with a fiery mountain and the holiday of Passover; and lived for more than a century.
These traits describe the biblical Moses, of course.
But the traits also refer to a more contemporary historical figure who was so influential throughout the Jewish world in his day that it would be appropriate for us to remember him at this time of year.
The English businessman-philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) ventured seven times to the Jewish homeland, showing a continuous interest and generosity toward the sprinkling of Jews who then lived in the four Jewish holy cities – Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron – of Ottoman-ruled Palestine.
In the days when global travel required considerable wealth, time and energy, he also journeyed on humanitarian missions on behalf of his co-religionists to such far-flung places as Morocco in 1864 and Romania in 1867.
In Russia, which he visited in 1846 and 1872, he pleaded with Czars – much like his biblical namesake did with Pharoah – to relieve the oppression of his people. He returned from the second trip assured that a bright new age was dawning for Russian Jewry.
Montefiore – whose name evokes images of a Sinailike “mountain of fire” – first saw Jerusalem in 1827.
The experience so deeply affected him that he became a strictly observant Jew and dedicated himself to bettering the conditions of life of his Jewish brethren, wherever they might be.
Today, those leaving London can easily fly to Jerusalem in fewer than 10 hours, but in 1827 it took that length of time for the Montefiores and their party to make it to Dover, where they joined a ship crossing to the European mainland.
They left England May 1 on their initial journey to Palestine and reached Jerusalem on Oct. 17, but were compelled to stop in Egypt for some time enroute.
“Several times they felt some doubt whether it would be possible for them to reach their destination,” wrote Albert M. Hyamson in a monograph on Montefiore’s life and times.
“While on the sea they were beset by rumours of pirates, and on land, with those of war, and in fact, left Cairo hurriedly in consequence of sudden unjustified warnings of imminent trouble between Egypt and Turkey.”
Upon reaching Palestine, Lady Montefiore recorded in her diary with some satisfaction that she was one of only six Western European women known to have visited the country in the course of the century.
The greatest Jewish benefactor of his day, Montefiore left his mark on the Jewish homeland. He planted the first seeds of Israel’s lucrative citrus crop near Jaffa and founded the first Jewish quarter outside the old walls of Jerusalem.
A daring landmark, Montefiore’s windmill is a focal point of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, named in his honor and memory. A small museum there displays one of the simple carriages that took the Montefiores across Europe and the Levant.
Sir Moses, who presided over Britain’s Jewish Board of Deputies for some 40 years, has been called the “last of the shtadlanim,” the official protectors of the Jews of other lands. It was in this capacity that he went on a urgent mission to Cairo and Constantinople at the height of the infamous Damascus Affair of 1840.
Convinced that local Jews had slaughtered two Christian to use their blood in Passover matzah, officials in the Syrian capital had tortured dozens of Jews, extracted confessions and put four of them to death.
As the populace at large had eagerly accepted the veracity of the ancient blood libel, anti-Semitic sentiment had reached a feverish pitch and the beleaguered Jewish community faced a constant danger from mobs.
In a meeting with the Sultan of Turkey, Montefiore secured a promise of protection for the Jews as well as official document proclaiming that the charges of ritual murder were false.
Upon his return to England, he was honored by Queen Victoria for his “unceasing exertions on behalf of his injured and persecuted brethren in the East, and of the Jewish nation at large.”
Perhaps more than other similar events, the Damascus Affair shocked the scattered Jews of the Diaspora into the recognition that they were still a unified nation, capable of acting across international lines in matters of Jewish welfare.
Montefiore remained active in international Jewish affairs until almost his 100th birthday, which was celebrated as a public holiday, by Jewish communities around the world.
He died July 28, 1885 – “and the children of Israel wept for Moses.”