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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Life’

Kosher Slaughter Ban Shows Poland Has a Jewish Problem

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, has a Jewish problem.

In a painful affront to the Jewish community, it recently defeated a government initiative to reinstate the legality of kosher slaughter of animals. This prompted Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, to threaten resignation and triggered sharp criticism of the Sejm from Jewish communities in Poland and around the world.

What happens in Poland regarding Jews has special significance because of the Holocaust. More than 90 percent of the country’s three and a half million Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation. Poland began legislating against kosher slaughter in 1936, and once the Germans occupied the country three years later, the practice was banned entirely.

Since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, however, Jewish life in Poland has undergone a remarkable, and previously unimaginable, renaissance. Full recognition of the rights of Jews to practice their faith – including kosher slaughter – was enshrined in an agreement the government signed with the Jewish community in 2004.

Indeed, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, addressing an overflow crowd at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington several weeks ago, declared it was his country’s responsibility to ensure “that today’s Jewish community in Poland is safe, welcome and respected.”

He honored Poland’s Jewish community “not just for how it died, but for how it lives, and how it is coming back to life.”

When legislation was adopted a few years ago mandating the use of electronic stunning equipment before an animal is killed – a practice prohibited under Jewish law –the Jewish community was granted an administrative exemption. In January, however, a court ruled the exemption unconstitutional. Alleged violations of animal rights trumped age-old Jewish religious practice.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government framed legislation to override the court decision. What should have been a fairly easy corrective measure was instead defeated on July 12 by a vote of 222 to 178, leaving in place the judicial ban.

Thirty-eight Sejm members representing Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform party joined with the opposition in voting to outlaw ritual slaughter. In Poland, this was viewed as a major victory for animal rights advocates, as their views prevailed against the nation’s farmers and meatpackers, who had developed a lively business exporting kosher and halal meat to Israel and Muslim countries.

Jews, however, see matters quite differently. From their perspective, the Sejm’s action stigmatizing kosher slaughter as inhumane blatantly contradicts Foreign Minister Sikorski’s pledge to make Jews “safe, welcome and respected.” They point out that kosher slaughter, whereby the animal is rendered immediately unconscious by severing the carotid artery, is humane, and that the continued legality of hunting in Poland, which results in far greater and more indiscriminate pain to animals, suggests there may in fact be another, unstated reason for outlawing kosher slaughter: anti-Semitism.

In the wake of the Sejm vote, pejorative comments about Jews in some of the Polish media and online give some credence to these fears.

Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident. The situation for European Jews looks even grimmer in a broader context. Just a few months ago, a similar scenario unfolded in Germany when a court banned ritual circumcision, another fundamental element of the Jewish religion, on the grounds that it mutilated children without their consent. There, too, anti-Semitic motivation was not hard to discern in certain quarters amid the talk about physiological and psychological harm.

Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel navigated a bill through the German parliament overruling the court and reestablishing the religious freedom of Jews to continue an age-old tradition of their faith. Whether Poland will successfully follow her example and push through a law guaranteeing the right to kosher slaughter remains to be seen.

Such attacks on Jewish religious practice, in fact, constitute just one front in a wider struggle over the future of Jewish life in Europe. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, increasing by 30 percent between 2011 and 2012. In France, there was an astounding 58 percent jump over that same period, including the targeted murder last year of four Jews, three of them small children, in Toulouse.

Vocally anti-Semitic political parties are represented in the Greek and Hungarian parliaments and are gaining power on the local and regional levels in other countries. Public opinion polls show alarmingly high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes. Demonization of Israel in the media and among some intelligentsia is often indistinguishable from Jew-baiting. No wonder that opinion surveys point to a striking number of European Jews contemplating emigration.

Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

One of the many themes I talk about here is the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon. Going OTD means abandoning adherence to Halacha and often includes abandoning belief in the Torah. Or God. Or both.

It should not come as any surprise to anyone that this is a serious problem in all observant denominations. From Hasidim, to Yeshivish, to Centrist, to LWMO… all have their share of OTD. Not to mention the “Lites” of every denomination.

The reasons one might go OTD are varied and many, including things like having been sexually abused; growing up in a dysfunctional family situation; undiagnosed learning disabilities (like ADD or ADHD); or the inability of teachers to answer hard questions about belief. These and other causes have been discussed here before.

But I would note that the cause of going OTD I have been hearing a lot about lately is the lack of finding any inspiration in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the classroom is a Haredi one or a Modern Orthodox one. The lack of inspiration to remain observant is clearly either missing or being missed by students who do not pick up on it – if it is there at all.

This was brought home to me again last night at the annual NCSY dinner here in Chicago. One of the awardees made this point as did my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY (as well as Regional Director of the Midwest Region).

He spoke about this week’s Torah portion where the very first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was the establishment of the lunar calendar. Although I am not a Kabbalist and avoid references to the Zohar for many reasons (which I am not going to go into here) Rabbi Greenland made reference to the Zohar’s explanation for God giving this as the very first Mitzvah to His people. He compares the Jewish people to the phases of the moon. The moon waxes and wanes every month. And every month when it renews its waxing and waning cycle we bless it.

The Jewish people have their own moments of waxing and waning. Sometimes that occurs simultaneously. As is the case in our own era. On the one hand we live in unprecedented times. There are more Jews learning in religious day schools, high schools, and yeshivos post highs schools than at any time in history. There are more books published in English on every possible variety of Torah subjects than ever before enabling masses of people to access Torah unlike any time in history. There are tons of shiurim on the internet on every Torah subject and for every level of student – from the most sophisticated advanced student of gemerah to the novice.

On the other hand this is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Jews who don’t know anything about their own religion and don’t care. They do not know an Aleph from a Beis. Not because they reject Judaism. But because they never had the slightest exposure to it… other than tokenism. If I am not mistaken the figure Rabbi Greenland used is 90 percent.

Ninety percent of all Jews fall into this category. And more than half of them intermarry. In many cases this is even a cause for celebration. In a country that celebrates both diversity and assimilation at the same time, a mixed marriage is the quintessential example of how that works.

Who can forget the image of Chelsea Clinton under a chupah with her talis wearing, Yarmulke wearing chasan! The pop culture media salivated with great joy over that event. This is a media that includes many Jews. And many of those are themselves intermarried. As nice as it might seem for our standing in this country for one of our own to marry the daughter of a President, an intermarriage is not something to celebrate.

What we end up having is a twofold problem. Reaching out to the unaffiliated and reaching in to the uninspired. There is a lot of good work being done in the former. But what about the latter?

Rabbi Greenland said that NCSY addresses both problems. Although the majority of NCSY attendees are from non observant backgrounds, there are many from religious backgrounds who attend religious schools. While they all are taught the basics of Halacha, and how to study Torah in all its various forms many students just go through the motions. Once they graduate high school and move on to a university campus, the lack of having had any inspiration can easily cause them to drop observance altogether.

Borders: The Eruv In Contemporary Jewish Art – Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv at Yale

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts, Yale Institute of Sacred Music
Allan and Leah Rabinowitz Gallery, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale
32 Edgewood Gallery, Yale School of Art, New Haven, Ct
Hours and dates: www.yale.edu/ism/eruv

For most observant Jews, the eruv is invisible. Each week we prepare for Shabbos: ready our food, conclude our mundane affairs, shower, dress and put the house keys in our pocket and check the web that the local eruv is up. Unless there has been a storm or other physical disaster, we can assume everything is okay. Just like the Shabbos calm that descends for 25 hours, the eruv operates for us in the background: essential but unnoticed.

At Yale that is not the case. Margaret Olin, senior research scholar at the Yale Divinity School, has curated a groundbreaking three-part exhibition that critically examines this three thousand year old fundamental rabbinic institution. As far as I am aware the intricacies of such a complex halacha has never been subject to an artistic investigation, not to mention an entire exhibition of eleven diverse artists. Interestingly, almost all of these artists are not observant, which may be why they can feel free to artistically engage in this forbidding subject.

Mel Alexenberg, venerable conceptual artist, teacher and writer, has paradoxically one of the more traditional works in this show, a digital print on canvas, The Miami Beach Eruv (1998) that reflects its initially “hidden” nature. We see a gaudy Art Deco façade on Ocean Drive (Miami Beach) brandishing the glory of the material workaday world. Meanwhile a black and white digitalized image of Rembrandts’ fleeing angel (Angel Leaving Tobias, Louvre) is caught in this morass, symbolizing the religious Jew trapped in Miami’s culture of flesh and sensuality. And yet the thin eruv line stretches across the top, reminding us of Shabbos and delineating the permissible from the forbidden.

In a more practical vein Margaret Olin, the show’s curator and conceptual creator, presents us with a photographic primer on the very nature of the eruv. Her 35 photographs (2010 – 2012) and illuminating texts (including Maimonides, Talmud Yerushalmi, Franz Kafka, Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) present the purpose and means of the urban eruv. Describing it as “This Token Partnership” wherein multiple private dwellings agree to share a common space and its ownership by means of shared food (such as a box of matzah), Olin begins her images simply with the matzah of the Yale eruv. The scope of course quickly expands to include whole neighborhoods “shared” by means of symbolic walls and doorways, constructed by the most minimal of means, defined by her as “urban bricolage.” This term, amazingly appropriate for the eruv, is a postmodern technique in which ordinary and/or found objects are combined to create artworks. In the eruv this includes the sides of buildings, fences, telephone poles, wires and anything else that can be halachically patched together to create the legitimate borders of a shared private space. Her examination of the New Haven/Yale eruv with its rabbinic supervisors exposed the physical and conceptual complexities of such a project and guided her photographs. By focusing on the intricacies of the necessary vertical posts (lechi) and the horizontal posts or wires (koreh elyon) either in beautifully abstract close-ups or the seemingly invisible halachic borders in disarmingly simple street scenes, the viewer is slowly brought into the complex mindset of rabbinic urban architecture.

New York Hilton (2010), photograph by Margaret Olin
Courtesy the artist

Olin’s images explore how the urban eruv simultaneously includes and excludes city spaces with her image New York Hilton marking the Sixth Avenue border of the Manhattan eruv, paradoxically shutting off access to Jews who carry on Shabbos. Similarly she also explores eruv wires in Israel, such as the one in Abu Tur running past an Islamic institution, that proudly wave their “flags” and make the weekly checking easier.

Another aspect of the first section of the exhibition is an exploration of theoretical concepts that the eruv summons. Ben Schachter’s Eruv Maps (reviewed here in November, 2008) are naturally in abundance. These twelve deeply conceptual works slyly reproduce the map outlines of city eruvim using simple thread as the border, thereby echoing the wire that creates most eruv borders. These works operate by collapsing the vast physical size and complexity of the eruv into simple artworks, each 20” x 30.” In this way his work unexpectedly points out just how abstract and creative this rabbinic innovation actually is. As the catalogue notes, his eruv maps are “emulations of emulations,” reflecting the reality that “the eruv emulates architecture through a summary drawing in space by means of fishing lines and wires, so he emulates that drawing through his own fiber art…” It is the parsing the borders of interior/exterior (and at times interior exclusions or ‘holes’), real and imagined structures and walls, Shabbos boundaries and weekday spaces that make the eruvsuch an intriguing concept.

French Jewish Leader: Banning Circumcision Will end Jewish Life in Europe

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

French Jewish leader Richard Prasquier said that banning circumcision in Europe “would inevitably mean the end of Judaism” there.

“You can seek a ban but you need to understand the consequences: The inevitable disappearance of Jewish life from Europe,” Prasquier on Thursday told a European Parliament conference on religious freedoms.

Pasquier has been president of the CRIF since 2007.

CRIF (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France) is an umbrella body comprising all French Jewish groups, that was originally created in 1944 under the Vichy Regime. Nowadays, this national federation, made up of 62 Jewish organizations, is the voice of the organized French Jewish community.

France has Europe’s largest Jewish community, numbering between 500 and 800 thousand.

The conference, titled “Freedom of Religion and/or Mutual Respect in Europe,” was jointly organized by the European Parliament and the European Jewish Association.

Prasquier said attacking circumcision “is telling Europe’s Jews to pack their suitcases and leave” and that includes “Orthodox, traditional, or non-observant such as myself.”

He was replying to a question by Diane Luquiser, one of the conference’s 50 participants, who asked why Judaism could not “adapt to modern times” and abandon the practice “which hurts children.”

Prasquier revealed he was circumcised 11 years after his birth in Poland in 1945.

“Circumcising me was a difficult decision for my father, a Pole who had to drop his pants when the Nazis caught him,” he said. “That kind of difficulty is a reality which we would not like to see repeating itself.”

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association – the Brussels-based organization behind the conference – said that allowing Jewish and Muslim rites is “necessary for mutual respect.”

Over the past year, ritual circumcision of underage boys has been briefly banned in a Swiss hospital and in some Austrian hospitals after a court in Cologne ruled in June that such circumcision amounted to a criminal offense.

Last month, the German cabinet passed a draft law to permit ritual circumcision and clarify the legal situation.

JTA content was used in this report.

Closed: The Last Synagogue in Egypt

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Fears for the future of religious minorities in Egypt were accentuated earlier this month when it was announced that the last synagogue in the country would be closed down. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, which had operated in Alexandria, was the last functioning center of Jewish life in the country. It is now clear that its cavernous halls, built in the nineteenth century, will not be open to worshippers hoping to mark Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services this year.

Traditionally, the synagogue has been managed by an Israeli rabbi of Egyptian descent who frequently returns to the country to lead services there. Although there are many synagogues around Egypt, the one in Alexandria is the only active one, the others having been turned into tourist sites.

This year, as Rabbi Avraham Dayan was making preparations for the High Holidays he was told that the Egyptian authorities could not guarantee the safety and security of those wanting to attend the synagogue.

Dayan told Ynet:

This year there have been some violent demonstrations in Alexandria, and they [sic] are afraid to take responsibility over people…We are trying to organize a quorum, but because of the security-related situation we are not really succeeding. We are still in touch with the Egyptian security organizations and are trying to make some progress.

Sectarian tensions across Egypt have been heightened ever since last year’s revolution, with Christian minorities bearing the brunt of the violence.

One of the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring is the guarantee of security – long assured by the region’s old dictators; it has been cast away by the tide of popular unrest sweeping the region.

The power vacuum and instability caused by the overthrow of Mubarak empowered Salafist and Brotherhood activists who increasingly stoke sectarian tensions.

Last October, when Christian activists took to the streets of Cairo to protest their mistreatment, they were first involved in scuffles with radical Islamists before the army moved in. During the resulting crackdown, more than 25 Christian protesters were killed and more than 300 injured. It marked one of the most bloody and shameful sectarian episodes in Egypt’s recent history.

A Copt protester, Alfred Younan, told Reuters:

Why didn’t they do this with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organized protests? This is not my country any more.

This kind of instability has meant the Jewish presence in Egypt has steadily declined over much of the last century, and has now dwindled to just a handful in Cairo and Alexandria. A study by Stanley Urman of Jews for Justice from Arab Countries has found that this exodus started with the first Nationality Code in Egypt, passed in May 1926.

The Code stipulated that an Egyptian born to a ‘foreign” father – even if the father had been born in Egypt and had been previously recognized as Egyptian – was only able to claim citizenship if the father could prove that he:

…belonged racially to the majority of the population of a country whose language is Arabic or whose religion is Islam.

This law effectively blocked Jews from claiming Egyptian citizenship and relegated them to a lesser legal status in their own country. Later, because the Jews were not officially Egyptian, the government was able to expel a number of them.

This problem was accentuated in 1947, when amendments were passed which stipulated that at least 75% of administrative employees in any company had to by Egyptian, while 90% of the overall workforce also had to be Egyptian. This, of course, struck against Jewish commerce in the country, placed stifling strictures on some of their business, and accelerated the departure of more Jews.

The news that Egypt’s last synagogue, the Eliyahu Hanavi, will now be unable to hold services effectively brings an end to any remaining semblance of Jewish life in Egypt. This is something which should concern not just Jews, but Muslims too, as it epitomises growing intolerance and persecution of a minority. Where religious fanatics have started by persecuting minorities, it has not been long before they turned on their own, accusing them of irreligiousness, heresy and insidious betrayal. The religious freedoms of all Egyptians are in peril.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

Podwal’s Lamentations

Friday, July 27th, 2012

The Book of Lamentations: Illustrated by Mark Podwal The National Council on Art in Jewish Life, New York 1974

In 1974 Mark Podwal, noted author, illustrator and physician created a spare, illustrated Book of Lamentations. This complete English translation is graced with 28 black and white illustrations, or more correctly, reflections, on the tragic text. Podwal maintains Jeremiah’s alphabetical acrostic of each chapter containing 22 sets of lines, reflecting aleph to tav, denoting each English set with the appropriate Hebrew letter.

According to Sanhedrin 104a “Rabi Johanan said: Why were they smitten with an alphabetical dirge? Because they violated the Torah, which was given by means of the alphabet,” representing the tragic reality that the Jews of his time transgressed the Torah from aleph to tav, beginning to end. Eicha!

Cardinal (ca.1600) oil on canvas by El Greco
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Podwal’s visual reflections here all utilize existing works of art to extend his metaphorical reach. The fifth chapter begins:

“Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us. Behold, and see our reproach. Our inheritance is turned over to strangers; our houses unto aliens.”

A vicious beast glares out at us, clasping an 18th century Polish menorah in its teeth and blasphemously wearing a Torah Crown. The midrash comments that “our inheritance” refers to the Temple. In Podwal’s illustration this becomes the ornaments of our synagogues, tragically plundered. And to add insult to injury, the beast is none other than the iconic Capitoline Wolf, a medieval bronze sculpture of the she-wolf who nursed and saved the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. This terrifying pagan image represents the cruel Roman conqueror making off with the symbols of our pillaged faith. Eicha!

Inquisitor (1974) illustration by Mark Podwal
Courtesy National Council on Art in Jewish Life

There was perhaps no greater terror in Jewish history than the fanatical Inquisition faced by the Spanish Jews. While their mandate was only for Spanish Christians, the Inquisition especially preyed upon newly converted Jews and Muslims suspected of secretly practicing their old faith. The methods of spying, intimidation and torture led to harsh imprisonment, forced confessions and frequent execution by being burnt at the stake or beheading. The infamous Auto-de-Fe, a public ritual procession of accusation, humiliation and finally execution by burning, as well as all other investigations, were under the administration of the Grand Inquisitor. Torquemada (1483 – 1498) was the most notorious, especially known for his hatred of the Jews and central role in their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Many more Grand Inquisitors followed him, including Cardinal Don Fernando Nino de Guevara who was painted by El Greco in 1600. Arrayed in his ecclesiastical robes he is the epitome of church power. His black glasses frame a serious and determined face all too accustomed to cruelty.

“Thou hast heard their taunt, O Lord, and all their devices against me. The lips of those that rose up against me, and their muttering against me all the day. (3: 61-62)”

Podwal’s Inquisitor is overwhelmed by the robes of his office, just like his oversized hands emphasize the extent of his reach into innocent lives. The black windows behind him mask the screams of his victims. Eicha!

Ships are so often positive symbols of exploration, hope and prosperity that we must adjust our perspective to understand that for 16th century Spanish Jews they were the tragic means of exile from their homeland. As we recently saw in the frontispiece of the 1553 Ferrara Bible (Jewish Arts, 6-8), the floundering galleon became the symbol of the Spanish Jews in exile. The passage to exile was defined by the ship, combining its very real hardships with the realization that there would be no return home. While the Ferrara Bible image represents nothing but the pain of loss, Podwal’s ship sees the hope of saving their unique Torah and bringing it to new shores to spread its exceptional learning. Nestled in its foredecks the Sephardi tik naturally fits as the primary passenger in this modern understanding of the tragedy of Spanish Jewry.

Raising Jewish Children – Even When They’re Away At College

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

American Jews are known for the emphasis they place on academic success. Jewish professors populate America’s universities, and, respectively, Jewish doctors, lawyers and politicians help fill the nation’s hospitals, law firms and legislatures.

At the core of this success are generations of American Jewish parents who have encouraged their children to focus, work hard and succeed from kindergarten through college and graduate school.

College in particular is a formative time for students’ Jewish identities.

In a widely publicized essay written in 1968 for the journal Judaism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “By and large, college is a disaster area for Judaism, Jewish loyalty, and Jewish identity.”

More recently, in a 2006 study for the Avi Chai Foundation, Brandeis University researchers found that, “In the soup of the college experience, Jewish students are making religious choices, and these are often decisions to do less, not more.”

Similar sentiments can be expressed about college students’ connections to Israel, though that is another matter.

No magic bullet exists to quickly and cheaply reverse this phenomenon. But parents can play a vital role in helping students – their children – maintain a connection to Judaism by setting an example of Jewish involvement and by partnering with the agencies that bring Jewish life directly to young people.

A Jewish parent’s relationship with a child is so sacred that it is codified in the Ten Commandments, requiring children to respect their mothers and fathers. But just as it is the children’s duty to respect their parents, so, too, is it the parents’ responsibility to raise their children.

Jewish education works best when it reinforces deep, rooted values established by parents.

Ideally, parents should begin educating their children at birth; however, they can begin at any age, and even after the children are off at college. In today’s hyperconnected world, students studying at schools across the country are just a phone call or a video chat away. Using technology, parents can model Jewish living from home while still allowing their children the space to grow up.

Before children head off to college, parents often engage their children in various coming-of-age discussions. Parents must have a similar conversation about Jewish values and observances – a discussion in which they articulate expectations and hopes that too often are left unsaid. Of course, such a conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the walk” by serving as role models of Jewish living.

Parents can also support their college students by sending them care packages associated with Jewish holidays and themes. Some synagogues already do this, but when these gifts come from home, they carry that much more intergenerational meaning and educational value.

Universities have evolved to become more inclusive in the services they offer to students – whether from a psychological or career counselor, a resident adviser or even a campus rabbi. Instead of only supervising a university’s kosher food or facilitating prayer services, campus Jewish groups have broadened their reach to serve as much of the Jewish student community as possible. Far from being a place of refuge for a few committed Jewish students, these organizations have developed programs to reach out to all those seeking meaning in their Judaism.

The challenge is to reach all Jewish students – not just those who are already inclined to participate. The goal must be to show Jews of all stripes and backgrounds that within Judaism’s incredible depth and breadth is something -more than just something, even – that could interest them.

If parents want their children to have a close connection with Jewish life on campus, they should connect with the campus Jewish mentors who are there 24/7 for students. Just as parents support their children’s secular education, it is imperative that parents also support their children’s Jewish education at college by providing financial support to Jewish organizations there. This will also help to create a culture of Jewish involvement from the home to the campus.

These ideas, when delivered to young people with a bit of space and a lot of love, can resonate during college and long after.

(JTA)

Rabbi Hershey Novack is director of the Chabad on Campus-Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Early Jewish Settlement Of Newport

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

In 1636 Roger Williams, after having been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for what were considered radical religious views, settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay. He was joined by twelve other settlers at what he named Providence Plantation, due to his belief that God had sustained him and his followers.

This settlement became the colony of Rhode Island, which was unique in that it guaranteed freedom of religious practice to all. It is little wonder that the colony became a haven for Quakers, Baptists, Jews and other minorities who were prosecuted for their religious beliefs.

It seems Jews first settled in Newport in 1658, though some disagree with this date.

The date of the first arrival of the Jews in Newport has been variously given by different writers. Some give it as 1655, while others state it as 1656, 1657, or 1658. There is also a conflict as to the place [from] whence they came, although all seem to agree that the newcomers were originally from Holland.1

During the middle part of the 17th century the Dutch, acting through the Dutch West India Company, sent out several expeditions of Jews to settle in its possessions in South America. The most well known of these settlements was the one established at Recife, Brazil.2 In 1654 when the Portuguese wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch, the Jews who had been living in Brazil left. Some of these Jews found their way to Jamaica, where they settled.3

In 1655 Jamaica was captured by the British, and regular trade between it and Rhode Island was established. Jews who had fled Brazil most likely learned about the religious freedom permitted in this colony and decided to immigrate there.

Newport was a main port on the eastern coast of America during colonial times and hence an attractive place for Jews to settle. Indeed, Max J. Kohler wrote:

We must discard our present day view of Newport as an important fashionable summer resort, and permit our thoughts to carry us back to the period when, for some thirty years preceding our Revolutionary War, Newport was one of the principal cities in the American colonies. In commercial importance it must be put in the same category with Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston, and it was not the most insignificant, even among these, for, as Edward Eggleston has well said, “he was thought a bold prophet who said then that ‘New York might one day equal Newport,’ for, about 1750, New York sent forth fewer ships than Newport, and not half as many as Boston.”4

 

The total number of Jews who initially settled in Newport was very small, probably no more that fifteen Spanish/Portuguese families. However, their numbers increased with the arrival on August 24, 1694 “of a number of Jewish families of wealth and respectability” from one of the West Indian Islands, most probably Curacao.

Jewish Life in Newport

 

The Jews who settled in Newport soon established the institutions necessary for the proper functioning of Jewish life. A minyan was organized shortly after their arrival in 1658, and services were conducted in private homes for the next 100 years. In 1677 land for a cemetery was purchased. This is the oldest known location of a Jewish cemetery in the United States.

With the arrival in Newport of the Lopez, Rivera, Polock, Hart and Hays families, all Jews, the city entered into an era of prosperity.

It was generally conceded that Newport had every advantage. Wealth had centered here, and was attracting capitalists from every part of the world. Between 1750 and 1760 some hundreds of wealthy Israelites, a most distinguished class of merchants, removed here from Spain, Portugal, Jamaica and other places, and entered largely into business.5 One of them, Mr. Aaron Lopez,6 owned a large fleet of vessels (rising thirty at one time) in the foreign trade, and many more in the coasting trade.

The manufacture of sperm oil and candles was introduced into Newport by the Jews, from Lisbon, between 1745 and 1750, and from that time to 1760 there were put in full operation seventeen factories for these articles alone; also twenty-two distilleries, four sugar refineries, five rope-works, and many large furniture factories, shipping immense quantities of furniture to New York, the West Indies, Surinam and many other places. In 1770 mention [was] made of eighteen West India vessels arriving here in one day.

As has just been indicated, the Jewish merchant princes were not merely the capitalists who furnished the wherewithal for this trade, but their enterprise created the trade itself, introduced the new arts and industries involved, and furnished the trade connections through their co-religionists in the different foreign ports with which the relations were formed.7

The Jews of Newport participated in the general life of the city and were viewed most favorably by their non-Jewish neighbors. One gentile writer wrote:

The Jews who settled in Newport were not only noted for their knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry, enterprise, and probity. They kept to their callings, took but little part in politics – at least there is no evidence that they gave much attention to the discussion of public questions – and they seem to have avoided both the marine and military service. They were neither good sailors nor good soldiers; nor do they appear to have been very fond of books. Moses Lopez and Jacob Joseph, it is true, were numbered among the founders of the Redwood Library, and in 1758 Jacob Rodriguez Riviera was a stockholder in that institution but this may be taken as one of many evidences of their desire to promote whatever promised to be a public benefit. Their business, with but few exceptions, they made a success, and in all things appertaining to their devotions they were exact.8

The American Revolution Leads to Decline

 

The residents of Newport, Jewish as well as gentile, flourished until the American Revolution. Rhode Island declared its independence from Britain two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Given its large harbor and strategic location, Newport was a prime target of the British. The port was blockaded by the British fleet and Newport was soon under British control. This occupation was a devastating blow to the economy of the community. Many residents left rather than submit to British rule.

Almost all the prominent Jewish merchants fled the city, and Newport never regained its commercial prominence. By the early 1800s the Jewish community was essentially non-existent. During most of the 19th century almost no Jews resided in Newport, and the Touro Synagogue was used only on rare occasions. The descendents of Newport’s once flourishing Jewish community scattered throughout America. Sadly, many lost their Jewishness through intermarriage and assimilation.

This marked the end of a glorious chapter in America Jewish history. Indeed, in 1858 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” in which he wrote in part

 

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,

No Psalms of David now the silence break,

No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue

In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,

And not neglected; for a hand unseen,

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.9

 

[1] “The First Settlement of the Jews in Newport: Some New Matter on the Subject” by Samuel Oppenheim, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1937; 34, AJHS Journal.

2 See “Recife – The First Jewish Community in the New World,” The Jewish Press, June 3, 2005, page 32.

3 See Caribbean Jewish Communities in the 17th and 18th Centuries – Part I, The Jewish Press, October 4, 2006, page 28.

4 “The Jews in Newport by Max J. Kohler,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1898; 6, AJHS Journal.

5 This number is most probably inflated, unless many of those who came left. Ezra Stiles wrote that he estimated there were about 30 Jewish families in Newport in 1760. (“Ezra Stiles and the Jews”by Reverend W. Willner, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961);1900; 8, AJHS Journal.)

6 For information about Aaron Lopez, see “Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince,” The Jewish Press, October 7, 2005, page 36.

7 Ibid.

8 Reminiscences of Newport by George Champlin Mason, published by Charles E. Hammett, Jr., 1884, page 54. This book may be downloaded at no cost from http://books.google.com

9 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touro_Synagogue_Cemeter for the complete text of this beautiful poem.

 

 

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/the-early-jewish-settlement-of-newport/2009/12/30/

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