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While some colonial Jews experienced difficulty living both as Jews and Americans, Boston’s Moses Michael Hays created a different experience. Without the companionship and support of an organized Jewish community and without legal guarantees of religious freedom, Hays thrived in the “first circles” of Boston society while publicly practicing his Judaism.
Moses Michael Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Dutch immigrants Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. Judah Hays took his son into his shipping and retail business and upon his death in 1764, left him the business and largest share of his assets.
Judah Hays left Moses Michael Hays something else as well: a firm grounding in his Jewish faith and responsibilities. Moses served New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel as second parnas (Vice-President) in 1766 and parnas in 1767. Even after moving to Boston, Moses retained an attachment to Shearith Israel, appearing on its donor list throughout his life.
In 1766, Moses married Rachel Myers, the younger sister of famed New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Hays continued his shipping business. Business reverses landed Hays in debtor’s prison but under a 1771 reform law, Hays liquidated his assets, gave them to his creditors, and was set free. He immediately reestablished himself in the trans-Atlantic trade.
The American Revolution brought Hays a new challenge as a Jew. In 1775, seventy-six men in Newport were asked to sign a declaration of loyalty to the American colonies that included the phrase, “upon the true faith of a Christian.” Hays publicly objected to the phrase and refused to sign, instead offering a letter affirming his belief that the Revolution was a just cause. When, after much wrangling, the Christian portion of the oath was omitted, Hays affixed his name.
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