Censuses of the Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land, together with those of Alexandria, Sidon and Beirut, were compiled by Sir Moses Montefiore during his visits to the region between the years 1839 and 1875. The details recorded include personal and family particulars, occupations and countries of origin, together with surveys of Jewish religious institutions. Taken together, these censuses constitute a unique sociological and genealogical record of Jewish life in this area at that time.
The censuses are unusually comprehensive as it is estimated that fewer than 1% of the Jewish inhabitants of Eretz Israel refused to participate because of religious scruples. Some others may not be included for personal or political reasons. The remainder accepted that the process adopted by Sir Moses was in accordance with Jewish law and gave him their personal details for inclusion in what he described as “Statistical Accounts”.
Sir Moses had undertaken to distribute charitable funds collected throughout the world, together with money of his own, to the Jewish poor; and he worked from dawn to dusk, day after day in difficult conditions, to do this personally. Each applicant received a gift of coins (Spanish dollars), according to a fixed scale, from the hands of Sir Moses himself – based on lists prepared at his request prior to his arrival. It is clear from the documents themselves that almost all members of each community participated, and not just the poorer ones.
The manuscripts are handwritten in a variety of scripts. These belong to the Montefiore Endowment and are held in its library in London, where they can be seen by appointment. Many of the pages are difficult to read and, lacking any index, the tracing of individuals can be time-consuming.
In the year 2008 the Montefiore Endowment commissioned the Israel Genealogical Society to transcribe the censuses into a modern Hebrew font, transliterate the names, and translate the data into English. This immense labour was undertaken by teams of dedicated volunteers; and the censuses have now been published on-line for the first time, together with a search engine in Hebrew and in English to facilitate the finding of individual names and families.