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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.
Hays and his family left Newport for Boston before the British occupation in 1776. Hays opened a shipping office in Boston, and was among the first merchants there to underwrite shipbuilding, trade, and insurance to newly opened Far Eastern markets. In 1784, Hays became a founder and the first depositor of the Massachusetts Bank, which is still doing business today as Fleet Bank Corporation. With his close friend Paul Revere and fourteen other Boston businessmen, Hays formed several insurance companies.
Hays helped establish the New England Masonic movement. When Hays was accepted into the Massachusetts Lodge in November 1782, he was the only Jew, the first signal that Hays had won acceptance in Boston’s elite society. In 1792, the lodge members elected Hays their Grand Master. Paul Revere served as his Deputy.
The Hays family filled a large brick home with 15 rooms and 31 windows in Boston’s fashionable Middle (now Hanover) Street. The Hayses had seven children and when Moses’s widowed sister Reyna Touro died in 1787, Moses and Rachel raised his young nephews and niece.
Samuel May, Louisa May Alcott’s grandfather, was a close childhood friend of the Hays and Touro children and recalled “Uncle and Aunt Hays” for their pride in their Judaism:
If the children of my day were taught among other foolish things to dread, if not despise Jews, a very different lesson was impressed upon my young heart. … [The Hays] house … was the abode of hospitality. … He and his truly good wife were hospitable, not to the rich alone, but also to the poor. … I witnessed their religious exercise, their fastings and their prayers. … [As a result] I grew up without prejudice against Jews—or any other religionists.
As Boston lacked a synagogue, Moses Michael Hays conducted regular worship services at home. The household library contained dozens of Hebrew books. The Jewish commandment to dispense charity laid the foundation for what the Hays family did for Boston and its citizens. Moses Michael Hays provided financial support to beautify Boston Common, establish theaters, and endow Harvard College. His children and nephews went on to lead distinguished and charitable lives. His son, Judah Hays, was the first professing Jew elected to a position of public office in Boston. Hays descendants also helped found the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts General Hospital. Nephews Judah and Abraham Touro learned to be successful merchants from their uncle, and Judah went on to become America’s first great national philanthropist.
Moses Michael Hays died in 1805. His obituaries in the secular press remembered him as “a most valuable citizen . . . now secure in the bosom of his Father and our Father, of his God and our God.” Hays lived his life successfully as an American and a Jew, accepted by the Boston community with respect as both.