Two audiences listen to Washington letter

Celebrating the 231st anniversary of Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport

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NEWPORT – On Aug. 15, at Touro Synagogue, two audiences gathered to hear two important historical letters, read aloud, marking the 74th anniversary of this moving community ceremony. One audience, wearing masks, gathered inside the historical 18th-century synagogue building, and the other audience sat just outside under a tent in Patriots Park waiting to view the annual program of readings and speeches on a screen.

Both audiences were about to be treated to a unique feature of this annual commemoration of President George Washington’s letter and visit to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790. This year, for the first time, all the speakers on the podium would be women.

The program’s line-up was impressive. Pamela Elman, of Touro Synagogue, served as master of ceremonies. Rector Della Wager Wells, of Emanuel Church, Newport, gave the invocation. Eliza de Sola Mendes, Touro Synagogue Foundation board member and member of Shearith Israel, read Touro Synagogue Warden Moses Seixas’ 1790 letter to President George Washington. US Navy Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield, president of the Naval War College, read Washington’s response to Seixas’ letter. Dr. Frances Malino, Sophia Moses Robison Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History, Wellesley College, gave the keynote speech. Rabbi Cantor Aliza Berger, of Temple Emanuel, Newton, Massachusetts, provided musical interludes.  

The speeches, prizes, music and prayers, enhanced the words of both Seixas’ letter, written on Aug. 17, 1790, and the words in President Washington’s reply. Seixas eloquently expressed the anxiety of a historically oppressed minority who were seeking assurance from President Washington that the “children of the stock of Abraham” would find in the new nation, “Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.” President Washington’s historically important reply, dated Aug. 21, 1790, assured 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 stirring words, Washington gave his official endorsement of freedom of religion one year before the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

Keynote speaker Malino, an authority on Jewish and European history, and especially on Jews living in medieval Spain, the lands of Islam, France and Europe, focused her expertise on Seixas’ and Washington’s letters. She wondered if the Jews of Newport in 1790 were aware of the French Revolution and what was happening to the Jews of France in that period. She invited the audience to accompany her on a “somewhat bold journey of historical fact and, yes, a bit of conjectural fancy as we explore the interconnectedness between the Jews of Newport, President Washington’s visit and the 1789 Revolution in France.”

Malino continued her analysis by drawing attention to the Sephardi Jews of Bordeaux, who were part of the “Sephardi diaspora which formed an international network of merchants, brokers and businessmen, dependent for their success on the honesty, integrity and, most important of all accountabilities of their fellow Jews.” 

Malino then explained the important link she sees between the Jews of Bordeaux, President Washington and the Jews of Newport. That link is the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who played a crucial role in our American Revolutionary War. According to Malino, the Marquis de Lafayette helped the Jews of Bordeaux to gain official recognition, protection, rights and full citizenship in France. Malino pointed out that Lafayette and Washington “were so close that after Lafayette was wounded in battle, Washington told the surgeon he should think of [Lafayette] as Washington’s own son.” Malino conjectured that Lafayette might have informed George Washington of his enthusiastic support for the Sephardi Jews of France and of the significant role he, Lafayette, had played in facilitating their citizenship. About six months after the Jews of Bordeaux became French citizens, President Washington visited Touro Synagogue and the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. 

In her closing remarks, Malino turned back to the letters. She said, “Moses Seixas’ pithy yet essential reminder: ‘to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’ Today more than ever we must turn to these words for inspiration. May they and the memory of those who proclaimed them enlighten and guide us in our journey forward.”

The day’s program included the awarding of annual prizes to those who have worked or written in support of religious freedom. The Judge Alexander George Teitz award was presented to Judy Batalion, author of “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos.” This is an untold story of rare and captivating history about a little-known group of women who took on the Nazis.

The program closed with a congregational singing of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” led by Cantor Berger, and with the benediction led by Rabbi Marc Mandel, of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, Newport.

SAM SHAMOON is a member of the Touro Synagogue Foundation board of directors.