Latest update: June 12th, 2013
Last month we sketched the life of Manuel Josephson (1729-1796), who immigrated to New York in the 1740s. Manuel was one of the few learned Jews residing in America in the 18th century. His talents were recognized by Congregation Shearith Israel, and he served on the synagogue’s bet din for several years and as its parnas (president) in 1762. He earned his living as a merchant.
In 1776, when it became clear the British were about to occupy New York, Manuel and a number of other Jews who supported the Revolution relocated to Philadelphia. There he became an active member of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikve Israel and was elected its parnas in 1785. He held this office until 1791.
Josephson’s Petition to Build a Mikveh[i]
“In 1784, Josephson presented the following petition to the board of Mikve Israel, asking that a ritual bathhouse (mikveh) be built for the women of the congregation. His motivation is classical in its orthodoxy: inasmuch as the American Jew had been blessed with desirable privileges, it was incumbent upon him to thank God by scrupulously observing the Divine Law. If he failed to do so, all the curses threatened in Holy Writ would descend upon the transgressor.”
Below is Manuel Josephson’s petition, with his spelling and punctuation.
It having pleased the Almighty God of Israel to appoint our lot in this country, the rulers whereof he has inspired with wisdom and a benevolent disposition toward us as a nation, whereby we enjoy every desireable priviledge and great preeminence far beyond many of our brethren dispersed in different countries and governments, And in order to manifest our gratitude for those peculiar favors and blessings, we ought, in a very sincere manner, observe a strict and close adherence to those laws and commandments ordained by Him and delivered to our master Moses, of blessed memory, which have been handed down to us in a regular succession to the present time….
In order thereto, we, the subscribers, having taken these matters to heart and duly reflected on the many defects this congregation called Mikve Israel in Philadelphia labours under, and to our great regret and sorrow we find one in particular, which strikes us most forcibly and cannot but affect with astonishment and horror every judicious and truly religious mind. This is the want of a proper mikve or batheing place, according to our Law and institution, for the purification of married women at certain periods….
Now, therefore, in full consideration of the foregoing, we have unanimously agreed that a proper mikve or batheing place for the sole use of our congregation be forthwith built, and that no delay may be made in accomplishing so necessary and laudable a work. We do hereby, each of us for himself, most solemnly and religiously engage and promise to pay such sum of money as is annexed to our respective names, without any hesitation or demur whatever, unto such person or persons as shall hereafter be nominated for the purpose of receiveing the said subscription money and to see the said work carried on and compleated. And we flatter ourselves that evry married man will use the most persuasive and evry other means to induce his wife to a strict compliance with that duty so incumbent upon them, that so the Almighty may look down in mercy upon us, and send the Redeemer to Zion in our days. Amen, so be it.
By 1786, the mikveh had been erected and placed under the supervision of the zealous Josephson.
Josephson’s Letter to George Washington[ii]
Shortly after the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, George Washington was elected as the first president of the United States. Moses Seixas, the brother of Gershom Mendes Seixas who was the minister of Shearith Israel at the time and minister of Mikveh Israel during the war, wrote a beautiful letter to the new president, filled with warmth and eloquence…. Washington’s famous reply repeated the eloquent words of Seixas and affirmed the equality of the Jews, and declared that America was different from other nations of the world because “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
This was to be the second of three letters Washington wrote to different Jewish communities during that year, mainly because of discrimination and infighting among the Jews. Shortly after the inauguration in April 1789, the presidents of the six congregations in the U.S. – New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, Richmond, and Savanna – agreed to send a joint letter. Then they spent the next year and a half arguing over who would sign it. The original plan called for the letter to be sent from Shearith Israel in New York, as this was originally the capital of the fledgling country. But there were months of delays and meanwhile Congress moved the capital to Philadelphia in January 1790
Then Manuel Josephson…offered to write the letter on behalf of the other congregations. However, the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardic elite who dominated the other congregations objected to the Ashkenazic Josephson, of humble Eastern European origins, considering him unworthy to speak for them. A few months passed in which nothing was done, so finally in May the Savanna congregation, noting and apologizing for the delay in writing, presented a letter to Washington. Washington was gracious in his eloquent reply. In August, Moses Seixas and the Jews of Newport also tired of waiting and presented their own letter, certainly the most famous of the three, along with its often-studied reply.
Finally, in December 1790, Josephson, in a short meeting with Washington, presented a letter from the four remaining congregations from Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond. Josephson apologized for the delay in adding their congratulations to those of the rest of the nation. Washington’s reply was shorter than the other two, but was nonetheless warm and appreciative, stating that “The affection of such a people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation” and conveyed how much pleasure he received from the support and approval of his fellow citizens. He thanked the Almighty for intervening on behalf of the Americans in the “late glorious revolution,” and promised to work just as hard for the country in times of peace as he did during the war. He closed by saying, “May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your congregations.”
Manuel Josephson died on January 30, 1796 and is buried in the Mikveh Israel Spruce St. cemetery. His wife, Rachel, who died on the same Hebrew date, 20 Shevat, a year later, is interred beside him.
[i] This material is taken from the American Jewish Archives, Volume XXVII, November, 1975 No. 2, pages 220-222.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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