Rabbi Soloveichick, God Delivered the Pilgrims and My People Nov 22, 2013 11:52:42 GMT -5
Post by shira on Nov 22, 2013 11:52:42 GMT -5
God Delivered the Pilgrims—and My People
The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving Day with the first day of Hanukkah has inspired culinary fusions like deep-fried turkey, song parodies and clever T-shirts. One enterprising lad has even invented the "Menurkey": a menorah (candelabrum) in the shape of a turkey. Humor aside, one group of American Jews—the members of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel —have reason to find in this year's calendrical happenstance a source both of institutional memory and of profound pride. Of all American synagogues, Shearith Israel has been celebrating both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving from the very beginning.
As with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the origins of Shearith Israel trace back to a small group of religious freedom-seekers and a treacherous ocean passage to the New World. In September 1654, 23 Jews set sail from Recife, Brazil, where the Portuguese Inquisition had made practicing Judaism impossible. Intending to return to Europe but captured by pirates mid-voyage, they gave themselves up for lost—until, as a congregational history puts it, "God caused a savior to arise unto them, the captain of a French ship arrayed for battle, and he rescued them out of the hands of the outlaws . . . and conducted them until they reached the end of the inhabited earth called New Holland."
Once arrived safely in New Holland, better known as New Amsterdam, the refugees formed the first Jewish community in North America. From the start, they remained loyal to their faith: praying together, ensuring the availability of kosher meat, and observing their holidays. For these individuals, the symbolism of lighting the Hanukkah candles in the dark of winter must have been especially resonant, at one with the dawning presence of Judaism in the New World.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Shearith Israel—the name means "the remnant of Israel"—was importing its clergy from Europe. But by 1768, it was ready to hire its first American-born minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas. And it is here that the story of Shearith Israel becomes forever intertwined with the story of Thanksgiving—and of America.
Known as the "Patriot Rabbi," Seixas ardently supported the American cause against Britain. By April of 1789, when the victorious George Washington arrived in New York to be sworn in as the first president of the United States, Seixas joined the city's Christian clergymen in the inaugural procession. Later that year, when the president proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving, the minister of America's first Jewish congregation delivered the first Thanksgiving address in a synagogue following the adoption of the Constitution.
In his sermon, delivered Nov. 26, 1789, he expressed his profound gratitude for a government that was "founded upon the strictest principles of equal liberty and justice." In a Thanksgiving Day service several years later, Seixas declared: "As Jews, we are even more than others called upon to return thanks to God for placing us in such a country—where we are free to act according to the dictates of conscience, and where no exception is taken from following the principles of our religion."
Throughout its history, the members of Shearith Israel have observed Thanksgiving by reciting in synagogue the same psalms of praise and gratitude sung by Jews all over the world on festive days like Hanukkah. This year, thanks to the coincidence of the two holidays, our members will be joined by a global chorus of their coreligionists.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, mine will be the honor of being formally installed as the 10th rabbi and minister of Shearith Israel since the American Revolution. In preparation for this event, I recently visited the synagogue's archives to peruse the writings of generations past. Among the documents was the original, handwritten text of the sermon delivered by Gershom Mendes Seixas on Thanksgiving Day, 1789.
Holding my illustrious predecessor's words in my hand, I felt the barriers between past and present collapse. Like my long-ago fellow congregants, Jewish pilgrims in a newfound land, I felt what it means to be a link in a chain stretching backward and forward across the centuries.
For my congregants today, lighting candles this Thanksgiving/Hanukkah eve will be a moment for reflecting on the story of our community, on our people's miraculous deliverance from their ancient oppressors, and on the land that opened to us yet another miraculous chapter in our history. We will also ponder our obligation, as Jews experiencing unfettered freedom, to live our lives fully as Jews and as Americans, to remain loyal to our faith while devotedly serving our country.
All this we will do as we lift up our voices to sing, with our fellow Jews around the world, as, perhaps, did the voyagers on the Mayflower upon their own arrival in the New World: "O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His kindness endureth forever."
Mr. Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.