One hundred and twenty-seven years after his death, the remains of the most famous Jew of his era may be reburied in Israel.
Sir Moses Montefiore, the doyen of Victorian Anglo-Jewish philanthropists, lies, with his wife Judith, in a mausoleum in Ramsgate, the seaside resort in Kent. The site is maintained by the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue using funds from an old Montefiore Trust. Sir Moses, who towards the end of his long life — he died shortly before his 101st birthday in 1885 — had become a very observant Jew, is buried in soil brought from Jerusalem.
But now there is a possibility that Sir Moses may be reburied next to the landmark for which he is most famous in Israel, the Jerusalem windmill.
In 1856, a year after a visit to the Holy Land, Sir Moses advertised in the Jewish Chronicle for bakers and millers. He wanted to break the Arab monopoly on flour and, in order to provide work to Jews outside the Old City walls, he built the windmill in the district which is still known as Yemin Moshe.
Last month, with the help of the descendants of the original British company that built the windmill, its sails were set to work again, 119 years after it stopped operating.
Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and his wine expert brother Adam Montefiore, who lives in Israel, represented the family at the reopening ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger.
“I had a conversation with the Prime Minister and I told him that a lot of the family thought it was about time that Sir Moses was brought back to Jerusalem,” Mr Sebag Montefiore told the JC.
Though he believed that the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue had done “a brilliant job” in running the Ramsgate site, he felt that it was “an increasing struggle” to maintain the mausoleum in the town, where there is very little viable Jewish life. Sir Moses’ home, East Cliff Lodge, was demolished in 1954 and there have been many attempts by commercial developers to obtain the site.
“In the 1970s,” Mr Sebag Montefiore said, “Golda Meir and the then Israeli government consulted the family to see if Sir Moses could be brought back to Jerusalem, but they said no.” Now, it seems, many family members have changed their minds, not least, Mr Sebag Montefiore believes, because they understand that it would have been Sir Moses Montefiore’s “dearest wish” as a religious Jew to have Jerusalem as his final resting place.
Mr Netanyahu’s response was warm and positive and Chief Rabbi Metzger has undertaken to consecrate an area of ground next to the windmill in order for a halachic reburial to take place. Now discussions will take place with the trustees of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the Montefiore family, the Jerusalem Foundation and the state of Israel.
Mr Sebag Montefiore told the audience at the windmill dedication: “Moses Montefiore loved Jerusalem, lived for Jerusalem, and even made it our family motto.
“A Zionist before the word was invented, he believed in the sacred idea of Jewish return as a religious Jew’s duty, and in Jewish statehood. He came seven times and I think he should return an eighth and final time”.