Finding Acceptance in the New World

Encouraging signs that the nascent U.S. would welcome Jews

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Like many immigrants to the New World, Jews arrived on the shores of what would become America for a variety of reasons, including religious freedom. Before independence, the states had various policies on the treatment of Jews and other religious minorities. After the United States was created and the Constitution ratified, however, Jews were afforded what the author of this piece calls elsewhere in his book "an unprecedented degree of 'equal footing'." Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press). 

A gala parade marking the ratification of the Constitution, held in Phila­delphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated this achievement [of equal treatment of Jews and other religious minorities in the Constitution]. It presented, marching together in one division, "the clergy of the different Christian denominations, together with the rabbi of the Jews [probably Jacob R. Cohen], walking arm in arm."

The famed physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, who witnessed the unprecedented spectacle, wrote that this first-ever ecumenical parade "was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion."

american flagThough it apparently escaped his notice, when the ceremony concluded, Jews ate separately at a special kosher table prepared on their behalf. Reflect­ing English custom, this public expression of Jewish ritual behavior (even, one assumes, on the part of those who were not always so scrupulous) effec­tively defined the boundaries of interreligious relations from the synagogue community's official perspective. Much as Jewish leaders rejoiced at the "equal footing' that brought them politically into step with Christians under the banner of the Constitution, they exercised the right to eat apart, following the precepts of their faith, formulated to help preserve Jews as a group.

Washington & the Jews of Newport

The famed correspondence between Jews and George Washington went even further in defining the place of Judaism in the new nation. The address of the "Hebrew Congregation in Newport" to the president--composed for his visit to that city on August 17, 1790, following Rhode Island's ratification of the Constitution--paralleled other letters that Washington received from religious bodies of different denominations and followed a custom long associated with the ascension of kings.

Redolent with biblical and liturgical language, the address noted past discrimination against Jews, praised the new government for "generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship," and thanked God "for all of the blessings of civil and religious liberty" that Jews now enjoyed under the Constitution.

Washington, in his oft-quoted reply, reassured the Jewish community about what he correctly saw as its central concern--religious liberty. Appropriating a phrase contained in the Hebrew congregation's original letter, he characterized the U.S. government as one that "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." He described religious liberty, following Thomas Jefferson, as an inherent natural right, distinct from the indulgent religious "toleration" practiced by the British and much of enlightened Europe, where Jewish emancipation was so often linked with demands for Jewish "improvement."

Finally, echoing the language of the prophet Micah (4:4), he hinted that America might itself prove something of a Promised Land for Jews, a place where they would "merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

More Than Just Newport

Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport was actually the second of three official exchanges between him and the American Jewish community. Two months earlier he had corresponded with the "Hebrew Congregation" of Savannah, and in December, fully 20 months into his administration, he received an embarrassingly late joint letter from the "Hebrew congre­gations" of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond.

Later generations saw in this plethora of letters a reflection of Jewish communal disorganization and disunity, which we certainly know to have been the case. But the episode also reveals anew the determined congregationalism American Jews and their reluctance to cede authority to any single congregation, even the prestigious "mother" congregation, Shearith Israel of New York [a large and influential synagogue].

In defining themselves vis-à-vis their neighbors, Jews in the new nation resisted the hierarchic model of organization that characterized the much-discredited Anglicans [from which many British settlers in the New World were fleeing], and organized no Presbyterian-type synods to govern them. Instead, the congregational form of governance characteristic of Protestant dissenters from Anglicanism came to characterize Judaism, sharply distinguishing it from Judaism as practiced in Europe, and the Middle East.

As the 18th century ended, the goal of "equal footing" seemed closer to realization. The burgeoning pluralism of American religion, the impact of new federal and state laws, and liberal pronouncements from political leaders all reassured Jews of their rights under the new regime and gave them a heightened sense of legitimation. Their numbers had scarcely grown; indeed, no more than three new synagogues were established in America between 1789 and 1824. Their status, however, had improved immeasurably, particularly in those cities where organized communities of Jews existed.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.