Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Jews Take Their Part in Helping Set Forth a New Nation- Part 2 for American Jewish Heritage Month


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.

( Wikipedia-Commons)

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?:

 Letter from Rebecca Samuel, c. 1790s

Dear Parents:

I 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].

Dear 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 the arba 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.

You 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.

As 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….

All 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, .

I 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.


Jewish Women's Archive. "Letter Written by Rebecca Samuel." (Viewed on May 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/node/25212>.


[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 war.



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!


Wikipedia Commons




Of course, no story of Jews in early America is complete without Haym Salomon:


Wikipedia commons

 Polish-born 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

 In 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.

Among 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.

Wikipedia commons

 What about the man who shaped the American constitution and gave birth to –a musical?

Did the original Hamilton family look like this?



Lin Manuel Miranda as Hamiltion or

Or, more probably like this: 


 Hamilton, generally considered a lifelong Christian, may have been born and raised Jewish. It’s an argument made in a new book “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton” by University of Oklahoma history professor Andrew Porwancher.


 He 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….

After 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)

Thomas 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 governmental Machine….

“..., 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).”

The clincher 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.

Go: Washington




 Next: The Jews and the Shaping of the United States

No comments:

Post a Comment