As the rabbi at Touro Synagogue, I frequently try to link the Jewish holidays to events in the synagogue’s long history. Passover is the holiday that most closely relates to Touro Synagogue. Passover is referred to as our time of freedom. We are all familiar with the history that is at the center of the text of the haggadah, which describes our exodus from Egypt. This exodus was the most important event in our history, and it gave birth to the Jews as a nation. Throughout Jewish history, however, freedom was an elusive privilege that often bypassed us and was withheld from us. That’s why it was no surprise when the Jews of Newport had the opportunity to meet the newly elected President George Washington in 1790, they directly asked him if the United States would be different from the countries they left.
Would the United States offer them the freedom that they knew from the haggadah, but not the freedom they experienced in real life? How relieved and thrilled they must have been when they read these words in the letter that George Washington sent.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, 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.”
This Passover, as we sit at the Seder and think about our long journey as a nation, let us be grateful for the special letter that George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, and let us cherish the freedom that it has blessed us with. Chag Kasher v’sameach!
RABBI MARC MANDEL is the rabbi at Touro Synagogue in Newport.