Ever hear of Gershom Mendes Seixas? Well, he might just be the forgotten hero of Thanksgiving.
Our national Thanksgiving narrative is rich with stories about proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of the United States. Schoolchildren rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note things Lincoln said.
And doubtless you have heard about what our first president, George Washington, declared while proclaiming the first official national day of Thanksgiving in 1789:
I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.
But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods. Quite the contrary – there are some fascinating and often overlooked stories.
Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. Described as “American Judaism’s first public figure,” he was appointed, in 1768, chazzan of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 Jewish residents.
He was just 23 years old at the time. Largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, he never actually became an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.
Seixas was the first Jewish preacher to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.
His synagogue, like much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city, during the early days of the conflict.
He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.
When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.