This year’s Independence Day marks the 245th year of the United States, a country that has been attracting more immigrants than any other throughout its existence. The freedom of religion and economic opportunities made this nation the leading diaspora country for the Jewish people. Our expression of gratitude for this country is limited this year not only by the coronavirus pandemic that restricts our presence at public celebrations, but also this year’s Fourth of July occurring on Shabbos.
The ongoing debate on the meaning of public monuments also raises the question on the moral qualities of Jewish patriots among their contemporaries, and in comparison to the values of our time. At Vleigh Place, facing the Kew Gardens Hills Library, is a monument to Haym Salomon. Although the signatories to the Declaration of Independence are almost exclusively of English, Welsh, and Scottish ancestry, nearly all American immigrants and minority groups have their heroes to demonstrate that they also had a role in the country’s founding.
German-Americans look up to Baron von Steuben, Polish-Americans honor generals Kosciuszko and Pulaski, African Americans have Crispus Attucks, and Hungarian immigrants have Michael Kovats de Fabricy as their examples of American Revolutionaries. Haym Salomon is a man worthy of an action film, and certainly a documentary.
A patriot from the start, his roles as a spy and financier who used his savings to bankroll the Revolution and secure foreign support are well-known. The British valued him, as well, seeking his services as a translator after arresting him for espionage. Instead, he tried to convince the Hessian mercenaries to desert from His Majesty’s service. On his second arrest, he was sentenced to death but managed to escape from his captors.
He was respected by the nation’s founders and among bankers of his time, but Jews were still subject to various legal restrictions and negative stereotypes after independence. In December 1783, he joined Chazan Gershom Mendes Seixas in a letter to Pennsylvania’s Council of Censors, requesting the removal of a religious oath for Jews seeking public office. The petition noted the contributions of Jews towards the Revolution as a reason for removing an oath based on Christian scripture. Along with the monument of Vleigh Place, there are monuments for him in Chicago and Los Angeles.
The majority of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, as did Colonel Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in that war. The Jews of Savannah and Charleston were not different from their gentile neighbors of that time in their opinions on slavery. Sheftall’s ownership of people should not be the defining element of his life. Like Salomon, he was arrested by the British and refused to switch sides. He maintained his kosher diet in captivity, while his captors taunted him by smearing pork grease onto his food. He offered to pay for the burial expenses of a fellow patriot prisoner who drowned in an attempt to escape the prison ship. On his second arrest, he was deported to the island of Antigua, where he remained steadfast to the patriot cause until his release.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Jews lived mostly in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Georgia. Some of the remaining colonies still had residency restrictions against Jews dating back to their early settlers. Jews were not actively persecuted, but there was plenty of distrust and suspicion resulting from centuries of Christian teachings. Recognition of Jewish participation in the Revolution ensured their acceptance in politics, business, and residence in communities where they were previously excluded. The narrative of the Founders echoed that of the Jewish experience throughout their history and during the Revolutionary War.
At the outbreak of independence, Seixas, the first American-born chazan of a synagogue, took the sifrei Torah of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and relocated his community to Stratford, Connecticut, in a state whose residents did not have previous interactions with Jews. His decision to lock the synagogue and flee British-occupied Manhattan left a positive impression among New Englanders.
Likewise when the British troops occupied Newport, Rhode Island, merchant Aaron Lopez relocated to Leicester, Massachusetts, to a state whose Puritan founders prohibited Jewish residency. Amid strangers, the Lopez family maintained “their peculiar forms of faith and worship.” He wrote about the lack of kosher food, surviving on “chocolate and coffee.”
Samson Mears fled New York for Norwalk, Connecticut, so that he could live among fellow patriots. The British burned this city on July 11, 1779, during the Three Weeks of mourning on the Jewish calendar. He wrote of how other Jews in Norwalk “truly realized the Anniversary Season with all its gloom that our predecessors experienced.”
In 1783, the British occupation of New York ended, and the congregants returned from their “exile” in Stratford. The synagogue wrote a letter to Governor George Clinton expressing its support for “the sacred cause of America” and looking forward to “the happy days when we expect to enjoy under a Constitution, wisely framed to preserve the inestimable Blessings of Civil and Religious Liberty.” Surprisingly, there are no monuments or streets to preserve the memory of Seixas, the chazan, Columbia College trustee, and participant in the inauguration of President Washington.
In Philadelphia, a banquet celebrating the end of the war had a separate table with kosher food for the city’s Jews. During that decade, the Constitution made religious equality the law of the land, but in a time when most laws were products of decrease rather than written codes, the letter from President Washington to the “Hebrew Congregation in Newport” demonstrated that the nation’s leadership would enforce this law.
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 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,” Washington wrote. “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.”
Seemingly, the exile to small New England towns had ended, and the Jewish patriots returned in celebration to their homes in Newport, New York, and Philadelphia. Seixas composed a patriotic prayer for this occasion, which celebrated the country’s hard-fought freedom while maintaining steadfast Jewish hope in Mashiach and return to our true homeland.
“As Thou hast granted to these Thirteen States of America everlasting freedom, so mayest Thou bring forth once again from bondage into freedom… Hasten our deliverance… Send us a priest of righteousness who will lead us upright to our land… May the redeemer come speedily to Zion in our days.”
By Sergey Kadinsky