The Jews and the American Revolution, Great article from WSJ May 27, 2016 15:42:31 GMT -5
Post by shira on May 27, 2016 15:42:31 GMT -5
Meir Y. Soloveichik
May 26, 2016 6:40 p.m. ET, WSJ
New Yorkers strolling through Chinatown in downtown Manhattan last Sunday might have noticed an unusual flurry of activity: Jewish men and women, a rabbi in a clerical gown, and a color guard gathering in graveyard tucked away behind a wrought-iron fence. Members of the New York synagogue Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, were visiting their historic cemetery at Chatham Square.
In an annual ritual ahead of Memorial Day, they were there for a ceremony that few other synagogues in America could perform: honoring the members of their congregation who had fought in the Revolutionary War.
For Shearith Israel, where I am the rabbi, what is most striking is not that its history stretches back to the Colonial period, but rather that so many of its congregants sided with George Washington against England. New York was known as a Tory stronghold: When English forces expelled Washington’s troops from the city, King George III’s soldiers were greeted with a “Declaration of Dependence” signed by hundreds of New Yorkers, declaring their allegiance to Great Britain.
The Jews of New York, by contrast, were largely of the patriot persuasion, in part because Shearith Israel’s spiritual leader, Gershom Mendes Seixas, was known for his vocal support for the Colonists’ cause. Like many members of the Continental Congress, even Seixas had hoped for reconciliation with England. As late as May 1776, Seixas gathered his flock in the synagogue, located then on what is now South William Street, to pray that the English would “turn away their fierce Wrath from against North America.”
The prayer was unanswered, and when independence was declared, Shearith Israel’s members, according to one congregational account, decided “that it were better that the congregation should die in the cause of liberty than to live and submit to the impositions of an arrogant government.” The synagogue was abandoned, the Torah scrolls spirited out of the city by Seixas, and the congregation fled, across the empty plains of Harlem and Washington Heights, ultimately decamping to Philadelphia for the duration of the war. Many congregants enlisted in the Colonial Army.
It is now my privilege to lead the annual graveside service for those who served in the Revolution—there are about 20 of them buried in this cemetery. When we plant American flags on the graves, I try to make sure that I, or one of my sons, attend to the grave of Jonas Phillips, one of my heroes.
Phillips, cited by Stanford Law School’s Michael McConnell as one of the first religious-liberty activists of the new republic, lived an “only in America life.” He arrived in South Carolina in 1756 as the impoverished, indentured servant of another Jew. Quickly earning his freedom, Phillips moved to New York and married a member of Shearith Israel. After the congregation fled to Philadelphia, Phillips served in Col. William Bradford’s militia during the Revolution and ultimately became one of the wealthiest and most prominent Jews in America, and an acquaintance of several Founding Fathers.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia of 1787, Phillips wrote to George Washington, its president, complaining that in Pennsylvania professing Jews were unable to serve in the state legislature because they wouldn’t acknowledge the New Testament to have been written by divine inspiration. “The Jews,” Phillips wrote to Washington, “have been true and faithful whigs, and during the late Contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the Cause, have bravely faught and bleed for liberty which they Can not Enjoy.”
The convention produced a constitution that banned all religious tests for national office. It is fitting, therefore, that the first Jew to receive a federal appointment in America was Jonas Phillips’s grandson, Mordecai Manuel Noah, President Madison’s ambassador to Tunis. His portrait still hangs at the entrance of Shearith Israel.
At the ceremony in advance of Memorial Day, we honor only the patriot Jews who served, but I also find fascinating the histories of some of those who didn’t fight for the American cause and remained in New York. Their families’ stories, each in its own way, speak of America’s promise.
One example is Samuel Lazarus, who wanted to get married in New York during the war but needed a clergyman to perform the wedding. Gershom Mendes Seixas, at risk to his life, snuck into the city to officiate. The marriage performed by Seixas produced a descendant by the name of Emma Lazarus, whose poem welcoming immigrants adorns the Statue of Liberty.
For many Americans, Memorial Day obligates us once a year to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. Yet for Jews, memory, bridging the gap between past and present, is a constant duty. The renowned 20th-century Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once wrote that for Jews, “bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences and archaeological history into a vibrant reality.”
I am reminded of this every spring, when, in a small cemetery in downtown Manhattan, patriotic Jews, buried for centuries, are given the chance to live again.
Mr. Soloveichik is the rabbi and minister of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of Yeshiva University.