Jews Take Their Part in Helping Set Forth a New Nation- Part 2 for American Jewish Heritage Month
June 10 2023
Follow the link for the video discussion
( In my online discussion, I open with a display of some reprints of early Jewish sermons from the early years of the new America)
Despite these obstacles, the Jews fought for their rights and
freedoms. In 1655, they obtained permission to bury their dead in a Jewish
cemetery and the right to trade on the Hudson & Delaware Rivers. In 1656,
they petitioned for equal rights with other citizens of the colony. They argued
that they paid the same taxes and were willing to serve in the militia. They
were led in these fights by Jacob Bar Simson and Asser Levy. They eventually
won their case and gained more rights.
In 1664, New Amsterdam was captured by the British and
renamed New York. The British rule brought some changes for the Jewish
community. The Jewish population in America grew slowly over time. From 23 to
300 a decade later
In New York by 1700 there was a synagogue on Beacon St. Then
by 1730s was the founding of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese
synagogue as it is known today. Jewish Settlements were spreading throughout
the colonies and then States. In Newport RI where there were 12 hundred Jews (
almost half of all the Jews) and the establishment of the Touro synagogue, the oldest standing
synagogue in the country.
Touro University, whose branch is in this building, is named
after Judah and Isaac Touro, one of the philanthropists who paid for the
property. There is another Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, also very old, which
the Touro’s helped finance.
For a virtual tour , you can go to https://tourosynagogue.org
Jews had settled in Philadelphia before 1682, and spread south to the Carolinas and Georgia .
By 1776, there were about 3,000
Jews, about 1/10 of 1 %, in America, mostly of Spanish origin.
What was life like for Jews in these early days?:
hope my letter will ease your mind. You can now be reassured and send me one of
the family to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the place to which, with
God’s help, we will go after Passover. The whole reason why we are leaving this
place is because of [its lack] of Yehudishkeit [Jewishness].
parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like
Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside
here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virginia] ten or twelve Jews, and they are
not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shohet [slaughterer of
animals and poultry] here who goes to market and buys terefah [nonkosher]
meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Ha-Shanah and on Yom Kippur the people
worshipped here without one Sefer Torah, and not one of them wore the tallit or
kanfot, except Hyman and my Sammy’s godfather. The latter is an old
man of sixty, a man from Holland. He has been in America for thirty years
already; for twenty years he was in Charleston, and he has been living here for
four years. He does not want to remain here any longer and will go with us to
Charleston. In that place there is a blessed community of three hundred Jews.
can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go. The way we
live now is no life at all. We do not know what the Sabbath and the holidays
are. On the Sabbath all the Jewish shops are open, and they do business on that
day as they do throughout the whole week. But ours we do not allow to open.
With us there is still some Sabbath. You must believe me that in our house we
all live as Jews as much as we can.
for the Gentiles, we have nothing to complain about. For the sake of a
livelihood we do not have to leave here. Nor do we have to leave because of
debts. I believe ever since Hyman has grown up that he has not had it so good.
You cannot know what a wonderful country this is for the common man. One can
live here peacefully….
the people who hear that we are leaving give us their blessings. They say that
it is sinful that such blessed children should be brought up here in Petersburg.
My children cannot learn anything here, nothing Jewish, .
remain, your devoted daughter and servant,
Rebecca, the wife of Hayyim, the son of Samuel the Levite
Letter written by Rebecca Samuel in Yiddish in the 1790s (exact
date unknown); sent from Petersburg, Virginia to Hamburg, Germany.
Archive. "Letter Written by Rebecca Samuel." (Viewed on May 11, 2023)
[As a side note, I served as Rabbi
in Newport News, about an hour away, not far from Jamestown, the first English
settlement, took course work in colonial Williamsburg, College of William and
Mary, dined at a famous fish restaurant at Yorktown, the site of the British
surrender in the Revolutionary War. Our son was born in a hospital overlooking
the harbor where the first battle of modern battleships was fought. And a ton of other history in a small area!]
Jews took their active part in the Colonial period and the Revolutionary
War even though they were very few in numbers.
For example, Francis Salvador, from a prominent Jewish family
in London, came to the colonies to save the family fortune and built up farm
lands in South Carolina. He became a real pioneer type, leather stockings and
all. He was soon elected to the South Carolina provisional Congress as a
representative and he was authorized to issue letters of credit for the new
state. He kept the government costs down ,took part in drafting state
constitution , and he later died in the battle with Cherokee Indians who were fighting
for the British at that time. At age 29, he was the first Jew to die in the
Mordecai Sheftall had been chairman of the Parochial
committee of Christ Church Parish [that’s a county, not a church fyi ] .The de
facto governor of that part of Georgia, the royal governor James Wright protested.
“One Sheftall, a Jew is on the parochial
committee. This fellow issues orders to captains of vessels to depart the
king's port without landing any of the cargoes legally imported.! “
He took an active part
in the revolutionary government of Georgia and he was captured by the British
who called him a “very great rebel.” In jail it is thought that he spoke
Yiddish to German soldiers and made friends with them. The British soldiers
tormented him by trying to force him to eat pork. He escaped to Charleston from
prison in a boat ,was captured again, and this time imprisoned in Antigua and
later released. He loaned money for expeditions against Indians and supplies
for troops .He was owed $139,000 and got back some $7,682. Sheftall was also a religious
Jew and later moved to Philadelphia where he helped build the synagogue, Mikveh
Israel, and also served as its president. Benjamin Franklin also contributed!
Of course, no story of Jews in early America is complete
without Haym Salomon:
American businessman who was a principal financier of the fledgling American republic and also a founder of the first
Philadelphia synagogue, Mikveh Israel.
In 1772, probably
because of his revolutionary activities for Polish liberty, Salomon fled
to New York City, where he established himself as a commission merchant
1776 the British, who controlled New York City, arrested Salomon; exposure
suffered in prison later contributed to his early death. He was paroled but was
arrested again in 1778 on more serious charges; he escaped and went to
Philadelphia. There he established a brokerage office and acted without salary
as the financial agent of the French, doing all in his power to facilitate the Franco-American Alliance.
his many other contributions to the colonies, Salomon subscribed heavily to
government loans, endorsed notes,
gave generously to soldiers, and equipped several military units with his own
money. Robert Morris, the
superintendent of finance from 1781 to 1784, appointed Salomon as
broker to his office. Morris records in his diary that between 1781 and 1784
Salomon lent more than $200,000. According to some reports, the government owed
Salomon more than $600,000, though the exact amount is unknown. At the time of
his death in 1785, Salomon was penniless https://www.britannica.com/biography/Haym-Salomon
Statue in Chicago, of Washington, flanked by the financiers
of the Revolution, Morris on the left,
Salomon on the right.
researched Hamilton’s mother, who was born Rachel Faucette, married a man named
Johann Levine and took his surname. It’s a surname that appears in many
versions in historical texts, some of which were shared by Jews of the period….
the Levines had a son, their marriage broke up. Rachel Levine later had two
more sons, including Alexander, out of wedlock with a Scottish man named James
Hamilton. She enrolled Alexander in a Jewish school on Nevis, which had a
significant Jewish population—about one-quarter of the free white population…
Juxtapose this relative indifference of Christianity with Hamilton’s emergence as a strong defender of Jewish equality in the early years of the American republic, [more] than any other Founding Father.”
The author's premise is that Rachel Faucette may have converted to Judaism when she married Levine, which would have made Hamilton Jewish through his mother !Maybe yes, maybe no, but it is plausible that
he had some strong Jewish influence that made him support and defend Jews at a
time when they were not accepted into early American society.
Which now begs the question_ what did it take
to guarantee our rights here?
Going back to our rights here:
It was South Carolina
that was the first colony back in 1669 to grant freedom of conscience to Jews
heathens and dissenters. This was the reasoning:
Article 87 stated: that
heathens, Jews, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian Religion may
not be Scared and kept at a distance from [knowledge of it, but, by having an
opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its
Doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, may, by
good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing Methods of Gentleness and
meekness Suitable to the Rules and design of the Gospel, be won over to embrace
and unfeignedly receive the truth: Therefore, any Seven or more persons
agreeing in any Religion shall constitute a church or profession, to which they
shall give Some name to distinguish it from others. (https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3710&context=sclr)
Jefferson believed that his claim to fame rested upon the statute of freedom of
religion of the state of Virginia, which he promulgated because he observed the
persecution of dissenting Christians from the official state religion ( the
Church of England.)
“We the General Assembly of Virginia
do enact [Be it
enacted by the General Assembly] that no man shall be compelled to frequent or
support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be
enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall
otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all
men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in
matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or
affect their civil capacities.”
This state version formed the basis for the very first line
of the first amendment to the Constitution, 1788.
Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
But did that
mean Jews? Jews, by historic memory, were very wary of their standing.
Thus, from the
head of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island:to President Washington:
“Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham
to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person
& merits—and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.
“Deprived as we
heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a
deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a
Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to
bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously
affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming
every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great
“..., we desire to
send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men—…, may
graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal
life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered
to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of
the water of life, and the tree of immortality” (DLC:GW).”
was Washington ‘s famous ,in response, echoing some of the wording:
It is now no
more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class
of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.
For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no
sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live
under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on
all occasions their effectual support.
It would be
inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased
with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my
felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land,
continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every
one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be
none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not
darkness in our paths and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and
in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.