“In September 1783, Gershom Seixas along with Haym Salomon, Simon Nathan, Asher Myer, and Bernard Gratz addressed the Council of Censors of Philadelphia on the statutory requirement of what they believed was a discriminatory oath for holding the office of assemblyman. The Philadelphia law called for swearing belief in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, and these men protested that it precluded observing Jews from holding office.”
The British evacuated New York on November 25, 1783, and Congress demobilized the American army shortly thereafter. The Revolution was over, and many of the Jews who had left New York to avoid British rule returned to the city. Congregation Shearith Israel was eager for its hazzan to return and wrote to Gershom in December asking if he intended to return and lead their Congregation. On January 28, 1784, after some negotiations regarding salary and other compensation, Gershom was reelected as hazzan by the members of Congregation Shearith Israel. He was to receive a yearly salary of 200 pounds, an allocation of six cords of firewood, matzah for Pesach, some other perquisites, and funds to defray his travel expenses from Philadelphia. Gershom was to take office on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, March 23, 1784.
When Mickve Israel learned that Gershom was leaving, its congregants protested, asking that his departure be delayed. However, in a strongly worded letter, the parnas of Shearith Israel made it clear that Gershom’s first loyalties were to Shearith Israel, and Gershom returned to New York, although not by Rosh Chodesh Nissan.
Upon his return to New York, Reverend Seixas found that most of its Jews were struggling financially to recover from the crippling years of British occupation. During the winter of 1785 things got so bad that Shearith Israel actually considered discharging its hazzan, shochet, shammes, and clerk. A special appeal was made and additional funds were raised so that these employees of the congregation were not dismissed. Nonetheless, more often than not they were not paid on time. Gershom remained loyal to the congregation despite the fact that in some years his meager salary was reduced. In short, he was constantly financially strapped, and the pressures increased over the years as his family grew. (Recall that from his first and second wives he has a total of 14 children to support.) At times he received additional income through his activities as a teacher, a shochet, and a mohel, but even with this income he was just barely able to get along financially.
The War of 1812 negatively affected the finances of New York’s Jews and, of course, those of the hazzan of Shearith Israel. In 1813 he reported that “Provisions are dear; the necessaries of life almost an impossibility.” In 1814 Seixas wrote, “Business is at a standstill, people calculate upon an armistice.” Yet his family never knew acute want. In one way or another he managed to maintain a basic standard of life while never wavering in his loyalty to Congregation Shearith Israel.
(To be continued)
[i] See “America’s First Torah Scholar: Israel Baer Kursheedt,” The Jewish Press, Feb. 9, 2007. The article is available at http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/americas-first-torah-scholar-israel-baer-kursheedt/2007/02/07/