“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are createdequal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,that among these are Life, Liberty, and thepursuit of Happiness.” These words from the American Declaration ofIndependence reflect the deepest ideals and aspirations of the Americanpeople. America is notmerely a country, vast and powerful; America is anidea, a vision of life as it could be.
When these words were first proclaimed on July 4, 1776, Congregation Shearith Israel was almost122 years old. It was a venerablecommunity, with an impressive history--a bastion of Jewish faith and tradition,and an integral part of the American experience.
When the British invaded New York in 1776, alarge group of congregants, including our Hazan Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas,left the city rather than live under British rule. Many joined theRevolutionary army and fought for American independence.
Some remained in New York, andconducted services in our synagogue building on MillStreet. Early in the war, Britishsoldiers broke into the synagogue and desecrated two Torah scrolls. This wasnot just an attack on scrolls, but was a symbolic assault on the spiritualfoundations of Judaism, the self-same foundations upon which the Americanrepublic has been built.
In our service today, we read from one of these Torah scrolls as asymbolic response to those soldiers, and to all those who would seek toundermine the eternal teachings of Torah and the principles of Americandemocracy: we are not intimidated, we are not afraid. Generation by generation, we will continue tolive by our ideals and by our faith. Generation by generation, we will lend our strength to the greatAmerican enterprise that promises hope and freedom, one nation under God, withliberty and justice for all.
Our story in America is notbuilt on historical abstractions, but on generations of Jews who have playedtheir roles in the unfolding of this nation. It is a very personal history, ingrained in our collective memory.
Attending this service today are descendantsof Jews of the Colonial period, whose ancestors served in the AmericanRevolution; descendants of families including de Lucena, Gomez, Nathan,Hendricks, Phillips, Franks, Cardozo, Seixas. We welcome descendants of Rev.Johannes Polhemus, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, who was on the sameship as the first group of 23 Jews who arrived in NewAmsterdam in September 1654.
We welcome representatives of our sister congregations that date backtothe Colonial period: from the Touro Synagogue in Newport; fromMikveh Israel in Philadelphia; we haverepresentatives or words of congratulations from the historiccongregations in Savannah, Charleston and Richmond. We welcome membersof our sistercongregation, the Spanish and Portuguese community of London.
We welcome elected officials and their representatives. We welcomeofficers of the 20th precinct, who serve our community with courageand dedication. We welcome leaders of the American Jewish community, and thosewho have worked so hard for Celebrate 350, the national umbrella groupcommemorating the 350th anniversary of American Jewry. Indeed wewelcome all congregants and friends who have gathered here today on thishistoric occasion.
A number of those present today participated in the Tercentenary celebrationsof 1954. We have a member here today whose mother—now 107 years old—was part ofour community during the 250th anniversary celebrations in 1904/5.
Among us are descendants of Jews from all parts of the world, Jews whocame to America atdifferent times and under different circumstances; including those who arethemselves first generation Americans and first generation Jews. For 350 years, our generations have been partof the American experience, and have striven to make this a better nation.
We have just read from the Revolutionary Period Torah scroll, from thesection known as “Kedoshim”, only a few columns from where the British soldiersdamaged the scroll. Kedoshim opens witha challenge to the people of Israel to be aholy nation, to live according to the commandments of God, to have the courageand inner strength to maintain Torah ideals in a world that is not alwaysreceptive to such lofty teachings. Theportion goes on to specify how we are to manifest holiness: through charity;honesty; commitment to truth and justice; through the avoidance of gossip andhatred. It culminates with the words: ve-ahavta le-re-aha kamokha, and youshall love your neighbor as yourself. The very principles enjoined by this passage are the spiritualfoundations of the UnitedStates of America. These teachings are constant reminders of howto live a good life and build a righteous society; they also are prods to makeus realize how far short we fall from these ideals, how much more work remainsto be done.
On this 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community,we reflect on the courage and heroic efforts of our forebears who havemaintained Judaism as a vibrant and living force in our lives. We expressgratitude to America for havinggiven us—and all citizens—the freedom to practice our faith. This very freedom hasenergized and strengthened America.
Within Congregation Shearith Israel, we havebeen blessed with men and women who have helped articulate Jewish ideals andAmerican ideals. Their voices haveblended in with the voices of fellow Americans of various religions and races,to help shape the dream and reality of America.
The American Declaration of Independence pronounced that all men arecreated equal. In his famous letter tothe Jewish community of Newport, in August 1790, President George Washington hailedthe United States for allowing its citizens freedom—not as a favor bestowed byone group on another—but in recognition of the inherent natural rights of allhuman beings. This country, wrote President Washington, “gives to bigotry nosanction, to persecution no assistance.”
And yet, if equality and human dignity are at the core of Americanideals, the fulfillment of these ideals have required—and stillrequire—sacrifice and devotion. Realityhas not always kept up with the ideals. In 1855, Shearith Israel memberUriah Phillips Levy—who rose to the rank of Commodore in the U.S. Navy—wasdropped from the Navy’s active duty list. He was convinced that anti-Semitismwas at the root of this demotion. He appealed the ruling and demanded justice.He asked: are people “now to learn to their sorrow and dismay that we too havesunk into the mire of religious intolerance and bigotry?... What is my casetoday, if you yield to this injustice, may tomorrow be that of the RomanCatholic or the Unitarian, the Presbyterian or the Methodist, the Episcopalianor the Baptist. There is but one safeguard: that is to be found in an honest,whole-hearted, inflexible support of the wise, the just, the impartialguarantee of the Constitution.” Levy won his case. He helped the UnitedStates remain true to its principles.
Shearith Israel memberMoses Judah (1735-1822) believed that all men were created equal—includingblack men. In 1799, he was elected to the New York Society for Promoting theManumission of Slaves. During his tenureon the standing committee between 1806 and 1809, about fifty slaves were freed.Through his efforts, many other slaves achieved freedom. He exerted himself tofight injustice, to expand the American ideals of freedom and equalityregardless of race or religion.
Another of our members, Maud Nathan, believed that all men were createdequal—but so were all women created equal. She was a fiery, internationallyrenowned suffragette, who worked tirelessly to advance a vision of America thatindeed recognized the equality of all its citizens—men and women. As Presidentof the Consumers’ League of New York from 1897-1917, Maud Nathan was a pioneerin social activism, working for the improvement of working conditions ofemployees in New York’sdepartment stores. Equality and human dignity were the rights of all Americans,rich and poor, men and women.
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that human beings haveunalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.These words express the hope and optimism of America. They area repudiation of the tyranny and oppression that prevailed—and still prevail—inso many lands. America is a landof opportunity, where people can live in freedom. The pursuit of happinessreally signifies the pursuit of self-fulfillment, of a meaningful way of life. America’schallenge was—and still is—to create a harmonious society that allows us tofulfill our potentials.
President George Washington declared a day of national Thanksgiving for November 26, 1789. Shearith Israel held aservice, at which Hazan Gershom Mendes Seixas called on this congregation “tounite, with cheerfulness and uprightness…to promote that which has a tendencyto the public good.” Hazzan Seixas believed that Jews, in being faithful toJewish tradition, would be constructive and active participants in Americansociety.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not reserved only for thoseborn in America; they arethe rights of all human beings everywhere. This notion underlies the idealism of the American dream, calling for asense of responsibility for all suffering people, whether at home or abroad. American Jews have been particularlysensitive and responsive to this ideal.
On March 8,1847, Hazan Jacques Judah Lyons addressed a gathering at ShearithIsrael for thepurpose of raising funds for Irish famine relief. The potato crop in Ireland had failedin 1846, resulting in widespread famine. Hazan Lyons well realized that the Jewish community needed charitabledollars for its own internal needs; and yet he insisted that Jews reach out andhelp the people of Ireland. He said that there was one indestructible andall-powerful link between us and the Irish sufferers: “That link, my brethren,is HUMANITY! Its appeal to the heartsurmounts every obstacle. Clime, color, sect are barriers which impede not itsprogress thither.” In assisting with Irish famine relief, the Jewish communityreflected its commitment to the well-being of all suffering human beings.American Jewry grew into—and has continued to be—a great philanthropic communityperhaps unmatched in history. Never have so few given so much to so many. Inthis, we have been true to our Jewish tradition, and true to the spirit of America.
Who articulated the hope and promise of America moreeloquently than Emma Lazarus? “Give meyour tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, thewretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tostto me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” How appropriate it is that her poem is affixed to the great symbol ofAmerican freedom, the Statue of Liberty.
Alice Menken, (for many years President of our Sisterhood) didremarkable work to help immigrants, to assist young women who ran into troublewith the law, to promote reform of the American prison system. She wrote: “We must seek a balanced philosophyof life. We must live to make the worldworth living in, with new ideals, less suffering, and more joy.”
Americans see ourselves as one nation, indivisible, under God, withliberty and justice for all. Yet, liberty and justice are not automaticallyattained. They have required—and still require—wisdom, vigilance, and activeparticipation. America pridesitself on being a nation of laws, with no one above the law. The American legaltradition has been enriched by the insights and the work of many American Jews.
In one of his essays, Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo—a devoted memberof Shearith Israel--referredto a Talmudic passage which has been incorporated into our prayer book. It asks that the Almighty let His mercyprevail over strict justice. JusticeCardozo reminded us that the American system relies not only on justice—but onmercy. Mercy entails not merely an understanding of laws, but an understandingof the human predicament, of human nature, of the circumstances prevailing inhuman society. Another of our members,Federal Judge William Herlands, echoed this sentiment when he stated thatJustice without Mercy—is just ice!
Our late rabbis Henry Pereira Mendes, David de Sola Pool and Louis C.Gerstein, were singularly devoted to social welfare, to religious education, tothe land of Israel. They distinguished themselves for theirdevotion to Zionism, and played their parts in the remarkable unfolding of theState of Israel. They, along with so many American Jews, have keenly understoodhow much unites Israel and the UnitedStates—two beacons of democracy andidealism in a very troubled world.
These individuals—along with so many other American Jews—were exponentsof the American ideals and the American dream. During the past 350 years, theAmerican Jewish community has accomplished much and contributed valiantly toall aspects of American life. We have cherished our participation in Americanlife. We have been free to practice our faith and teach our Torah. We haveworked with Americans of other faiths and traditions to mold a better,stronger, more idealistic nation.
America today isnot just a powerful and vast country. It is also an idea, a compelling ideathat has a message for all people in all lands. As American Jews, we arecommitted to the ideals of freedom and equality, human dignity and security, tolife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of harmony amongourselves and throughout the world. We have come far as a nation, but very muchremains to be done. May God give us the strength and resolve to carry on, towork proudly as Jews to bring the American dream to many more generations ofhumanity.
I close with a prayer spoken by Mordecai Manuel Noah at the consecrationof our second Mill Street Synagogue on April 17, 1818: “May we prove everworthy of His blessing; may He look down from His heavenly abode, and send uspeace and comfort; may He instill in our minds a love of country, of friends,and of all mankind. Be just, therefore,and fear not. That God who brought usout of the land of Egypt, whowalked before us like ‘a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night,’ willnever desert his people Israel.”