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Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes: Man Of Chesed (Part II)

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As a result of Dr, Mendes’s influence the Jews of Havana, Cuba were granted the right to purchase a burial ground. Given that he became the recognized spiritual leader of Sephardic Jewry in the Western hemisphere, he was able, through correspondence and personal influence, to further the cause of Judaism in Panama, Costa Rica and other countries in Central and South America.

“Outside of the Jewish community, Dr. Mendes was no less active. His reputation grew from year to year. As early as January 24, 1878, he was a speaker at the third anniversary meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, together with Joseph H. Choate, Felix Adler, Chauncy M. Depew, General Horace Porter and the Rev. Henry C. Potter. On April 24, 1888, he opened the session of the United States Senate with (a) prayer.

“He was appointed a member of the Mayor’s Committee on the Hudson-Fulton celebration in 1909, and opened the ceremonies with prayer at the Metropolitan Opera House. He was a member of the Committee of Fourteen for the suppression of the abuses in connection with the Raines Law Hotels. He was a frequent and eloquent pleader for the cause of international arbitration and world peace, and he wrote innumerable articles and open letters on this theme of human brotherhood and international peace, stressing his claim that the spirit of the teaching of the Bible demands compulsory arbitration.

“In Masonry, he was chaplain of the Albion Lodge No. 26, F. and A. M., and he was the first Jew to attain the honor of being grand chaplain of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York (1895, 1897). As a member of the Clergy Club and as an active worker in every worthy public cause, he earned the high esteem of his colleagues in the Christian ministry and of leading citizens of all parties and all faiths.”

While the above is by no means exhaustive, the reader can certainly see that here was a man who was involved in an unbelievable number of activities that benefited his fellow man – Jew and non-Jew alike.

Early Zionist

“He was one of the first Zionists in the United States in the days when Zionism was still unpopular and misunderstood. Theodor Herzl asked his cooperation in organizing the movement in the United States, and he was elected vice-president of the Federation of American Zionists and a member of the Actions Committee of the World Zionist Organization at the Second Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1898, and again in Basel in 1899. All his life he remained an eloquent, albeit at times the sole, exponent of what he called ‘Bible Zionism’ or ‘Spiritual Zionism.’ On his deathbed, with the threat of further partition menacing the Land of Israel, he whispered, ‘Palestine without Jerusalem is unthinkable.’ ”

(Next month’s column will discuss Reverend Pereira Mendes’s scholarly activities and his role in the founding of the initially Orthodox Jewish Theological Seminary and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.)

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 llevine@stevens.edu.


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