NEWPORT – On Aug. 18, a packed audience in Touro Synagogue heard two historic letters read aloud, marking the 72nd anniversary of the moving community ceremony. The audience listened with rapt attention to the two eloquent letters, written at the dawn of our nation and dedicated to the principle of religious freedom.
The first letter, written on Aug. 17, 1790, by Touro Synagogue Warden Moses Seixas and addressed to President George Washington, expressed the anxiety of the Jewish community and sought assurances that the “children of the stock of Abraham” would find in the new nation “all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.” The letter was read aloud by Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, of Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York City.
The second letter, President Washington’s historically important reply, was read by Rhode Island’s senior U.S. senator, Jack Reed. In this letter, dated Aug. 21, 1790, the president of the new nation assures the Newport congregation that “… the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
With these words, Washington gave his official endorsement to freedom of religion, one year before the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
After the readings, the two letters were put into historical context by keynote speaker Judge Jed S. Rakoff, of the U.S. District Court for southern New York.
Judge Rakoff began his remarks by noting that while Rhode Island had ratified the U.S. Constitution in May 1790, becoming the last of the 13 states to do so, it was the ninth state to ratify what is now the First Amendment, which requires that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
With that, Rakoff said, “Rhode Island, with its own history of religious toleration, had firmly declared its support for freedom of religion for the nation as a whole.”
Rakoff then spoke of the slow realization of the religious freedom and security expressed in Washington’s words. He noted that, “Rhode Island, for one, did not even allow Jews to vote in state elections until 1842.”
He said the “scourge of anti-Semitism” continued through the decades, with Jews being excluded from country clubs, board rooms and neighborhoods, and that even after World War II, “Polls showed that a considerable percentage of Americans still regarded Jews as communist sympathizers who, nevertheless, secretly controlled Wall Street.”
Rakoff then linked this sad history to recent tragic events, including the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, on Oct. 27, 2018, “killing 11 members and wounding several others – the single worst anti-Semitic incident in U.S. history.”
In his concluding remarks, Judge Rakoff expressed thankfulness mixed with a warning. He said Jews owe this country a “huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our ‘natural rights,’ and for increasingly welcoming us into the American community without obliging us to abandon our own traditions and beliefs.”
He continued, “As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become ‘a great and a happy people,’ and Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge and confront the growing dangers we face.”
The program continued with the awarding of annual prizes to people who have worked or written in support of religious freedom.
The Judge Alexander George Teitz award was presented posthumously to Tom Lantos, and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. Lantos was a congressman from California from 1981 until his death in 2008, and was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress. Lantos’ daughter, Katrina Lantos Swett, gave an emotional speech describing how her father escaped the Nazi death camps and came to America.
The audience was also treated to musical performances by acclaimed violinist Misha Keylin, accompanied on piano by Suzanne Laramee, resident artist of the Newport Music Festival. They performed the Introduction et Tarantelle, Op. 43, by the 19th-century Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate, and later concluded the day’s program with a moving performance of “America the Beautiful.”
SAM SHAMOON, of Providence, is a member of the Touro Synagogue Foundation Board of Directors.