(All quotes are from “Portraits Etched in Stone: Early Jewish Settlers, 1682 – 1831” by David de Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1952.)
Last month we sketched the life of the Orthodox Jewish businessman Jonas Phillips who came to America in 1756. Jonas and his family first resided in New York and then moved to Philadelphia in either 1772 or 1773.
Pillar of Congregation Mikve Israel
“While in Philadelphia, Phillips was active in the affairs of its Jewish community. The Revolution brought there a large access of numbers from New York and elsewhere, and he was one of the committee which in March, 1782, was charged with purchasing the ground for a new and larger synagogue. With his payment…he was far and away the largest contributor towards the cost of the new synagogue building, with the exception of Haym Salomon…. One of the cornerstones of the new building was laid by him and one by Isaac Moses in September of that year. At the following meeting of the congregation he was elected its president. He had the honor of serving as president when the synagogue was consecrated, and on that occasion he presented to the congregation a scroll of the Torah and ‘made his Sephar Holy.’
“He had been one of those who had signed the memorial sent to the president, vice-president, and council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania asking for their approval of the opening of the synagogue, and it was he who wrote to General George Washington the letter inviting him to attend the dedication ceremonies.
“He was one of the most if not the most active of the members of that reorganized Philadelphia congregation. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah he would chant the haftarah, the prophetic reading, and on the second day the early morning Psalms, zemiroth. On the Day of Atonement it was he of the name of Jonas who would read the Book of Jonah, the reading from the prophets on the afternoon of that day, and on Hoshaana Rabbah he would read the Selihoth, the most important part of the service. His offerings to the congregation remained outstandingly generous…. The next year, however, they dropped…a reduction perhaps indicating not an impairment of his prosperity but a falling out with the synagogue authorities.”
Letter Asking Guarantee of Religious Freedom
In 1787 Jonas wrote a letter to Congress asking that the federal Constitution guarantee religious liberty in the state of Pennsylvania. He did not know that three weeks earlier it had been agreed upon that no religious test should ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. The following are excerpts from that letter (with Phillips’s original spelling):
I…being one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia, a people scattered & dispersed among all nations do behold with Concern that among the laws in the Constitution of Pennsylvania, there is a Clause [that reads] I do believe in one God the Creatur and governor of the universe and Rewarder of the good & the punisher of the wicked – and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the old & New testament to be given by divine inspiration…. [T]o swear & believe that the new testiment was given by divine inspiration is absolutely against the Religious principle of a Jew, and is against his Conscience to take any such oath – By the above law a Jew is deprived of holding any publick office or place of Government which is a Contridictory to the bill of Right Sect 2….That all men have a natural & unalienable Right to worship almighty God according to the dictates of their own Conscience and understanding & that no man ought or of Right can be Compelled to attend any Religious Worship or Creed or support any place of worship or Maintain any minister contrary to or against his own free will and Consent, nor can any man who acknowledges the being of a God be Justly deprived or abridged of any Civil Right as a Citizen on account of his Religious sentiments or peculiar mode of Religious Worship….