Judah Monis

America's first Hebrew instructor taught students at Harvard College from 1722 to 1760. His career teaches us about the challenges of maintaining a Jewish life in early America.

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Monis was born in Italy in 1683, into a family of Portuguese conversos. Educated at Jewish academies in Italy, Holland and Scotland, Monis immigrated to New York City around 1715, where he established a small store and taught Hebrew to Christians and Jews. By 1720, he had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and an area in which few Jews resided.

At that time, all Harvard undergraduates except freshmen were required to study Hebrew. Harvard assumed that no Christian gentleman could be considered truly educated unless he could read the Bible in its original tongue. Encouraged by his friends who considered him “a great master of the Hebrew language,” Monis presented his personal, hand-written manual of Hebrew grammar to the Harvard Corporation in 1720, its “Judicious perusall.” Two years later, the corporation voted “That Mr. Judah Monis be approved as an instructor of the Hebrew Language in that College,” making Monis the first full-time instructor in Hebrew at Harvard College–but not as a Jew. At that time, Harvard required its entire faculty to be professing Christians.

From the time of his arrival in North America, Monis corresponded with leading Protestant ministers on issues of kabbalah, the trinity, and Christian doctrine, and he studied with Cambridge ministers. One month before assuming his post at Harvard, Monis converted to Christianity.

Monis’s conversion attracted widespread notoriety. Some Christian clergymen warned of other converted Jews who reverted to their original faith. They expressed concern that Harvard’s requirement that its faculty members be Christians had compelled Monis to an insincere conversion. European Jews wrote of their outrage and dismay. Monis, however, defended his conversion in three books published in 1722. He argued that he had left Judaism out of religious conviction, not opportunism. He married a Christian woman and joined the First Church in Cambridge. Monis, the descendant of conversos, himself became a convert.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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