There is a nice town in the South of England, by the sea, called Ramsgate. It is a couple of hours journey from London. There one can visit the famous Montefiore Museum, where many interesting documents and various articles can be seen, which have a connection with the life and activities of the famous Jew, Moses Montefiore. Nearby there is the Synagogue that he built, and next to the Synagogue there is a tomb, an exact copy of Mother Rachel's Tomb, containing the graves of Moses Montefiore and his wife Judith. On the property a Yeshiva is situated, where a number of students of Sephardic descent study.
These are the memorials that Moses Montefiore left after his death. But, the greatest memorial that he left is his good name that he earned in the service of his Jewish brothers.
Moses Montefiore was a devoted worker for the public welfare, a mediator and intercessor in behalf of his brethren, a statesman and a diplomat. Everywhere Kings and Princes received him cordially, and he always defended the Jewish position with pride and vigor, doing his utmost for his coreligionists in various European countries.
Moses Montefiore was born on the 13th of Cheshvan, 5545 (1784) in the Italian city of Livorno. His grandfather, Moses Chaim Montefiore was a Sephardic Jew from that city, who later settled in London. He had 17 sons, one of whom, Joseph Elijah, was the father of Moses. When Joseph Elijah, together with his wife, traveled on business to Livorno, Moses was born there.
Moses Montefiore was raised in England in an atmosphere of Torah and Mitzvoth, and he remained a staunch, devout Jew throughout his entire life. In London he developed a big business, together with his brother Abraham. They did business with the Rothschilds: dealt in finance, and large industrial and commercial establishments. They formed an Insurance Company; a Gas Company, that introduced gas-lighting into many of the important cities of Europe. They also had a hand in the building of railroads, and in many other industrial and financial enterprises.
Moses Montefiore accumulated great wealth and became famous. In 1837 he was appointed "Sheriff" of London. He was the second Jew to occupy that important position. In the same year, Queen Victoria, who had just ascended the British throne, gave him the honorary title of "Knighthood," with the title "Sir" and in 1846 he was elevated to the rank of Baron. He occupied a number of important positions, both in Jewish and social circles.
Moses Montefiore differed from certain other Jews who, upon accumulating wealth and honor, sad to say, turn away from their religion. Moses Montefiore, as already mentioned, remained a religious Jew his entire life. At an early age, he started to interest himself in the lot of his fellow Jews. Later on, he used his great influence to obtain equal rights for the Jews in England. He was Gabbai (trustee) of the Sephardic Congregations of London, and was six times elected as Community Leader (Rosh HaKahal). For a period of 3 6 years, he was the head of the "Jewish Board of Deputies" - the organization of the United Congregations, and of elected Jewish officials, who represented British Jewry. When, at the age of 90, he gave up his position, the United Congregations of England gave him a farewell gift -12,000 pounds sterling. He donated the entire sum to build houses for the poor in Jerusalem. Being an orthodox Jew, he naturally loved the Holy Land, and he supported the worthy institutions most generously. He visited Eretz Yisroel seven times -the last time being in 1875, at the age of 91. If we take into consideration that a journey in those days entailed great difficulties, we can then realize what it meant for a person of such an advanced age to undertake such a trip. He distributed a vast amount of money in Eretz Yisroel; he built Synagogues, supported Yeshivos, and founded various types of important institutions. He had previously built a tomb over Mother Rachel's grave, in 1866, the magnificent tomb which is so well known. The Jews in Eretz Yisroel regarded him as a G‑d sent messenger, sent to help them in their great need.
When the terrible blood-libel broke out in Damascus in 1840, Sir Moses Montefiore went there personally to defend the falsely accused Jews. The outrageously false blood-libel (that Jews use Christian blood in the Matzah for Pesach) that had cost so many Jewish lives in the dark times of the Middle Ages, and was then renewed in Damascus, not only threatened the lives of the accused, but also those of the entire community, and of Jews everywhere. Sir Moses Montefiore (with the help of other prominent Jewish and non-Jewish leaders) managed to persuade the Sultan to issue a "firman" (decree) in which he declared the blood-libel to be false and prohibited its renewal.
In 1846 the Russian government officially invited Sir Moses Montefiore to visit Russia in connection with the Jewish situation in Russia. The Czarist government, aided by some leaders of the "Haskalah" ("Enlightenment") movement, tried to Russify, i.e., assimilate, the broad masses of Russian Jewry. The government hoped that with the support of such an important Jewish personality as Sir Moses Montefiore, it would certainly win its fight against the religious Jewish leaders in Russia, who refused to cooperate with the government in this matter, and who hindered every effort to force assimilation on Russian Jewry. The then Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, was especially opposed to all efforts that would lead to assimilation, and he worked with body and soul to prevent their succeeding.
Sir Moses Montefiore accepted the invitation, but not with the intention of becoming a tool in the hands of the assimilationists, but in order to become personally acquainted with the Jewish position in Russia, where the majority of world Jewry lived. Moreover, he wanted to see what he could do about the persecutions and pogroms which so often plagued the Jews there.
When Sir Moses Montefiore arrived in Petersburg (now called Leningrad), the Czarist minister, Count Kissilev, the Minister of the Interior, and Uvarov, the Minister of Education, greeted him with a long list of "accusations" against Russian Jewry and their religious leaders.
Sir Moses Montefiore did not rely on the testimony of these anti-Semitic ministers, and the misguided and misleading Maskilim. He undertook a trip through the towns and villages where the Jews lived, and upon returning to London, he compiled two memoranda from the material he gathered during his trip. One memorandum he sent to the Russian Interior Minister, and the other one to the Minister of Education. Sir Moses Montefiore wrote to them in a polite but firm manner, so as not to incite them, that the Jewish problem in Russia had nothing to do with the Jews' education, which happened to be on a high level. He denied the false accusations made against the Jews, and in turn, accused the government of dealing falsely with the Jews; he described the terrible economic position of the Jews because of government decrees, expulsions, pogroms, and economic sanctions. He demanded equal rights for the Jews, and stressed that it would also be a blessing for the country.
Thanks to the great self-sacrifice of the Russian Jews, who were strengthened and encouraged by Sir Moses Montefiore's efforts on their behalf, the government finally gave up many of its plans to force conversion and assimilation of the Russian Jews. Their economic position also took a turn for the better because of Sir Moses Montefiore's recommendations.
In 1872 Montefiore visited Russia once more, and was received by Czar Alexander the Second. Montefiore was pleased to notice the growth of a new class of Jewish business men and professionals since his first visit, but he did not notice the assimilation that had taken hold of these "upper" classes.
Sir Moses Montefiore was also received in audience by the Pope in Rome (in 18 5 8 ) when he went there to intercede on behalf of an Italian Jewish boy who was forcibly converted as a small child lying ill in bed. The gentile maid "sprinkled him with water," and the church declared him to be a Christian. The boy was forcibly taken away from his parents and brought up as a Christian. The case of the child Murtara caused a great storm of indignation, but no intercession helped to return the child to his Jewish parents.
When in Rumania, on a visit to help his Jewish brothers there, Sir Moses Montefiore once found himself in grave danger when a wild mob wanted to attack him. He narrowly escaped with his life. Nothing deterred him, however, when it was a question of helping his poor, persecuted brothers.
Sir Moses Montefiore died on the 13th of Av 5645 (1885) at the ripe old age of over 100 years.
The Montefiore Museum contains a great collection of gold and silver artistry that Sir Moses Montefiore received as gifts from kings and rulers, as well as documents of great historical importance. His Yahrzeit (anniversary) is observed yearly by the institutions which are maintained even today from the funds that he left for this purpose.