Benjamin’s anguish at the thought that son would be improperly prepared for full-fledged membership in the Jewish community is reflected in a March 1748 note to his friends in England (spelling and wording of the original have been preserved):
As I have received some letters five days ago from one of our relation, Samule, who writes me that you was so good as to send mee some books and other things, which I to my misfortune never have received, and as I do not no [know] which way they wear [were] sent, nor no [know] the name of the captain or the name of the ship, so I can’t enquier for them. I hope your honour will soon find it out wether that ship is taken by an enemy or lost at sea.
If she is not taken nor lost, I hop your honour will let me no [know] where to inquier for them. I live [leave] your honour to guess in what grife I am in to be so misfortenabel, my eldest son binq [being] three months ago thirten years of age and I not to have any frauntlets [phylacteries] nor books fit for him. I won’t troubel your houner with much writing, for my heart is full of grife. [On Love, Marriage, Children and Death, collected and edited by Jacob R. Marcus, Society of Jewish Bibliophiles 1965]
This letter demonstrates Benjamin’s determination to raise his children as observant Jews, despite the obstacles of living in a place where there were few Jewish families and no formal Jewish education.
. In 1772 he donated one and a half acres of land for the establishment of Georgia’s first large Jewish cemetery. Known familiarly as the Sheftall Cemetery until the mid-1800s, it was open to all Jews in good standing with their community. [www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/ArticlePrintable.jsp?id=h-3183]
By nature a political activist, Mordecai strongly supported the colonies in their differences with England and played a key role in the political affairs of Georgia.
In October, 1775, “Committee Men,” among whom were Mordecai and Levi Sheftall, entered the Customs House and demanded that the officials on duty hand over the ship’s papers of the sloop Charlotte so that they could send the ship, which customs officials had seized, on its way. When their demand was rejected, the “Committee Men” forced the locks on the desks in the office, rummaged “for the space of two hours,” and took the Charlotte’s papers . 1
The following summer, colonial resistance became all-out war.
In 1777 Sheftall was appointed commissary-general to the troops of Georgia and to the Continental troops also; in October of the following year he became “Deputy Commissary of Issues in South Carolina and Georgia”; and he figured as a staff-officer in the Continental line of the Georgia brigade during the war [with the rank of colonel, making him the highest ranking Jewish officer on the American side]. When the British attacked Savannah in 1778, Sheftall not only took an active part in its defense, but he also advanced considerable sums of money for the American cause. After the city had been taken he was captured, but he resisted all inducements to give up the cause of liberty; as a result he suffered severely from persecution on the part of the British, and was placed on board a prison-ship. The British appear to have spoken of Sheftall as “a very great rebel.”2
The Sheftalls, who loved Georgia, returned to Savannah in December 1782, five months after the British left.
The Sheftall brothers demonstrated that Jews could do in Georgia what others did, simply by insisting upon their rights as citizens and conducting themselves in such a way as to prove that they deserved no less than others. They bridged the gap between the Jewish and gentile communities, setting an admirable example in race relations and interfaith cooperation. The Sheftalls of Savannah, ambitious businessmen, patriotic Americans, generous humanitarians, and dedicated Jews, left behind them a name worthy of remembrance.3
1“The Sheftalls of Savannah” by David T. Morgan, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1972-Jun 1973; 62, 1-4; AJHS Journal (www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm).
2 The Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=581&letter=S&search=sheftall).
3 “The Sheftalls of Savannah.”
Dr. Yitzchok Levine formerly worked as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.