Centuries after their service, chance to honor patriotic Jews

I had never heard of this before, but I recently learned that it’s a yearly ritual for members of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City: They go back to their roots in what is now Chinatown, to their synagogue’s original cemetery, to honor the 20-some members buried there who fought in the American Revolution.
Shearith Israel, known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, was founded in 1654 by 23 Jews whose origin was in those countries, and had made their way north from their seminal settlement in Recife, Brazil. The story of honoring those long-dead patriots was recently told by today’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, the 10th in that position since the congregation’s beginning.
The most striking part of Shearith Israel’s history, he says, is that in the New York of that time, most loyalties were with England; hundreds of residents had actually signed a “Declaration of Dependence” affirming their allegiance to Great Britain. But most of the city’s Jews followed the lead of Gershom Mendes Seixas, who headed the congregation at that time. He had started with the synagogue as cantor in 1768, at age 23. Without formal training — there was no Jewish seminary in the U.S. then — he learned “on the job,” as it were, to become its spiritual leader. And since he was not an ordained rabbi, he was called “Minister,” which is the way Shearith Israel often refers to its clergy, even today!
Seixas had his flock pray together for the English to “turn away their fierce wrath from against North America,” but when that prayer wasn’t answered, Shearith Israel took this bold stand, which is part of the synagogue’s record: “… It were better that the congregation should die in the cause of liberty than to live and submit to the impositions of an arrogant government.” Most of its members then moved — taking their Torahs with them, of course — to the nearby, definitely patriotic city of Philadelphia.
But its “minister” was still ministering even to those Jews who sided with the British and remained in New York. One of them was Samuel Lazarus; when he needed a Jewish clergyman to perform his wedding, Seixas risked his life by sneaking back into that city to officiate. How ironic that one of the descendants of that clandestine ceremony was Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem now engraved on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, welcoming immigrants to their new home in America!
Today, the congregation’s annual pilgrimage across Manhattan includes a color guard; then, at the cemetery, American flags are placed on all appropriate graves. And there’s always a very special moment at the spot where Jonas Phillips is buried; he was the member who wrote to George Washington during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to complain that Pennsylvania would not let Jews serve in its state legislature because they would not accept the New Testament. In his letter, Phillips said, “The Jews have been true and faithful Whigs, and during the late contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lives and fortunes. They have supported the Cause, and have bravely fought and bled for liberty which they cannot enjoy.” Thanks to him, religious requirements for public office were done away with — not just in one state, but for our whole country.
Shearith Israel does its annual honoring on Memorial Day, but heading toward July 4 is a good time for us also to think about past Jewish heroes.
On that subject, the New York congregation’s “minister” of today quotes his own relative, Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “For Jews, bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences, and archeological history into a vibrant reality.” Then the current Rabbi Soloveichik adds his own comment: “I am reminded of this when, in a small cemetery in downtown Manhattan, patriotic Jews, buried for centuries, are given the chance to live again.”

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