Jews at Home in America (?)
•Read the biblical text and two letters below, followed by questions for contemplation and conversation.
1. Jeremiah 29:7
Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Adonai in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.
On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States on his visit to that city. President Washington’s visit to Newport was part of a goodwill tour on behalf of the new national government created by the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Newport had historically been a good home to its Jewish residents, who numbered approximately 300 at the time of Washington’s visit. (source)
2. Excerpts of the letter from Moses Seixas to President George Washington
To the President of the United States of America. Sir:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle...
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...
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden
3. Excerpts of the letter from George Washington in response to Moses Seixas
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.
...The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. 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 national gifts. 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.
...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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid (see Micah 4:4). 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.
(Read the full letters here)
Questions for Contemplation and Conversation:
- Jeremiah was speaking to Israelites during the Babylonian Exile, urging them to seek the peace of Babylon, their one-time conquerors. How do you think they would have reacted to this message? How does it resonate with you, as a Jew living in America? Do you think of America as “exile”?
- What struck you about how the Jewish community described itself in the letter to Washington? What would such a letter look like today?
- To what extent has Washington’s description of America in his letter been proved true by the test of history? Share a story of your family’s immigration to America: how does that experience reflect or challenge Washington’s lofty vision of America?
- Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has said that American Jews today enjoy more prosperity, safety, and acceptance than at any time or place in Jewish history. How do you react to that statement?
- In what ways do you feel that America is a home for you as an American Jew? In what ways do you feel excluded from it?