Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport
by Jeremy Goldstein
Growing up in New England (as I did) it becomes commonplace to almost literally stumble upon American history. Stories from your 3rd-grade textbook come vividly alive once you're standing outside the very buildings where those stories took place. Even better are the hidden gems, plaques, and memorials that may appear on an otherwise unspectacular walk around Harvard Square, Bunker Hill, or the North End.
Or at a little shul in Newport, Rhode Island.
I'm sure many of our readers know about Touro Synagogue and its rich history. In short, the congregation is one of the oldest in North America, founded by several Jewish families who emigrated from Barbados to Newport in the mid-17th century. As the congregation grew, a building was constructed in the mid-18th century, making Touro not just the oldest Synagogue in the United States but a Synagogue that actually pre-dates the existence of the nation itself.
On a family trip many years ago, we spent time at Touro Synagogue and learned of the particularly incredible story of George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport. The nation's first President visited Newport soon after Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution. Washington was met by a number of representatives from religious groups of Newport including Moses Seixas, the President of Jeshuat Israel (Touro's congregation).
Seixas, among the other representatives, was given an opportunity to read an address before the President in which he expressed confidence and delight in the formation of the new government and in Washington's leadership. In turn, after leaving Newport, Washington drafted a response to Seixas and his congregation.
Washington's letter isn't just a courtesy note. It's a truly remarkable and inspirational historical document that addresses the understandable concerns of the early-American Jews ("is there a place for us in this new nation?") and contains a forward-thinking and generous response to those concerns ("yes, and not only that, we couldn't have a new nation without you.")
More than that, it's a piece of Americana that reverberates 220-plus years into the future; the earliest beginnings of the Jews' unique place in our nation's culture and history. With forethought and the strength of their convictions, Seixas and Washington forged a bond between the American Jewish community and the United States that remains special and strong to this day.
George Washington's letter
Moses Seixas' letter
More about the history of the letters and Touro Synagogue
A Prayer for Our Country
Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leader and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.
May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more." And let us say: Amen
A Thank You from Hal Daum, Executive Director
Thank you so very much to the Synagogue and especially to those members who attended, sent messages, and spoke at the service Friday evening. It has been five challenging and rewarding years since I first came to University Synagogue as the interim Executive Director with a six-week commitment. We have gone through many changes and successes together and developed many wonderful friendships that we will continue to enjoy during the coming years. Nancy and I deeply appreciate the lovely gifts from the congregation and the Sisterhood and the lifetime membership. As we move on to new challenges we thank you for your friendship and support and look forward to seeing University Synagogue grow from strength to strength.