Latest update: June 15th, 2014
(All quotations are from “Gershom Mendes Seixas: His Religious ‘Calling,’ Outlook and Competence,”Thomas Kessner, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1968-Jun 1969; 58, 1-4; AJHS Journalpg. 444 ff.)
Last month’s column sketched the background of American born Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816), who became chazzan, or hazzan, of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel in 1768 at the age of 23. In 1775 Gershom married his first wife, Elkalah Myers Cohen, who passed away ten years later.
“As Seixas and his wife began to settle down, the Revolution broke out with actual hostilities in New York. The Jewish community, composed mainly of merchants, shared the grievances of their fellow traders (many Jewish merchants signed the non-importation agreement). Revolutionary feeling was intensified by revolutionary rhetoric which described England as an oppressive European power hindering personal liberties, a description applicable to the countries of the Inquisition.
“With the coming of the British, Jews, like all New Yorkers, had to decide whether to stay in New York and acquiesce in British rule or abandon their property and homes and leave the state in patriotic loyalty to the principles of the Revolution. In this dilemma Gershom Seixas rose to lead his fellow congregants. He identified with the Revolution on an elemental level. It was a movement that would benefit the Jew and a movement that accorded with the liberal views of the era. A short eight years after achieving his position of hazzan, Gershom Seixas influenced his congregation to make a strong show of support for the Revolution.
“The decision to leave New York must have been particularly difficult for Gershom Seixas. As the religious leader of his community, he had to make the decision to abandon, and thus split, the congregation and to close down the synagogue. For all practical purposes this meant the destruction of the New York Jewish community. Furthermore, he had to take responsibility for the books and scrolls and other religious portables and for leaving the Jewish house of worship to the uncertainties of a war situation, (uncertainty justified when two British soldiers burned holes in two sacred scrolls that had been left behind). On another level it was a decision that meant a great deal of hardship for him in view of his meager finances and, more importantly, of a family tragedy that resulted from the loss of Elkalah’s infant child just three weeks before the move from New York.”
Despite these difficulties Reverend Seixas preferred not to remain in a city under British control, and he and his wife moved to his father’s home in Stratford, Connecticut, where they resided from 1776 to 1780. His favorite daughter, Sarah Abigail, the future Mrs. I. B. Kursheedt[i], was born there in 1778. There was no nucleus of a Jewish congregation in Stratford, and Gershom probably earned his living by going into business, as did most of the other patriotic refugee Jews who had relocated to Connecticut.
However, he did not completely abandon those Jews who had remained in New York City. For example, in March 1777 he went to New York to officiate at the wedding of Samuel Lazarus and Fannie Cushell, and in 1779 he performed the same service for the Hessian soldier Alexander Zuntz and Rachel Abrahams.
When his father died in 1780 Gershom moved to Philadelphia, bringing with him the property of the New York congregation he had carefully guarded during his four-year stay in Connecticut. There he was offered and accepted the position of hazzan of Congregation Mickve Israel. This congregation first met in the upper story of a rented building. In 1782 Mickve Israel erected a new building that Gershom dedicated. In his dedication speech he called for God’s protection for the Revolution and for Him to impart wisdom to the revolutionaries and their supporters.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
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