Finding Acceptance in the New World

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

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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.