NEWPORT – Audiences gathered both inside and outside the historic Touro Synagogue on Aug. 15 for the 74th annual commemoration of President George Washington’s letter and visit to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790.
One audience, wearing masks, gathered inside the 18th-century synagogue building. The other audience sat just outside, under a tent in Patriots Park, to view the annual program of readings and speeches on a large screen.
This year, for the first time, all the speakers on the podium were women, as was the program’s host and the guest letter-readers.
Pamela Elman, of Touro Synagogue, was the master of ceremonies. Della Wager Wells, rector at Emanuel Church, in Newport, gave the invocation. Eliza de Sola Mendes, Touro board member and a member of Shearith Israel, read the 1790 letter from Touro Synagogue Warden Moses Seixas to President Washington.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Shoshana Chatfield, president of the Naval War College, read Washington’s response to Seixas’ letter.
Dr. Frances Malino, the Sophia Moses Robison Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Wellesley College, gave the keynote address. Cantor and Rabbi Aliza Berger, of Temple Emanuel, in Newton, Massachusetts, provided musical interludes.
In his letter to Washington, dated Aug. 17, 1790, Seixas eloquently expressed the anxiety of a historically oppressed minority that was seeking assurance that “children of the stock of Abraham” would find “Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship in the new nation.”
The second letter, President Washington’s historically important reply, dated Aug. 21, 1790, 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 stirring words, Washington gave his official endorsement to freedom of religion – one year before the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
Following the reading of the two letters, keynote speaker Malino, an authority on Jewish and European history, and especially on Jews in medieval Spain, Islam, France and Europe, said she wondered if the Jews of Newport in 1790 were aware of the French Revolution and what was happening to French Jews at that time. 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 said she sees an important link between the Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux, France, President Washington and the Jews of Newport. That link is the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who played a crucial role in the American Revolution.
According to Malino, Lafayette helped the Jews of Bordeaux gain official recognition, protection, rights and full citizenship in France. This same Lafayette had a close personal friendship with George Washington. In fact, Malino pointed out, “they 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 Sephardic 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 returned to the letters.
“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,” she said. “May they and the memory of those who proclaimed them enlighten and guide us in our journey forward.”
The program also 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.”
The program closed with a congregational singing of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” led by Cantor Berger, and with a benediction led by Rabbi Marc Mandel, of Touro’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel.
SAM SHAMOON, of Providence, is a member of the Touro Synagogue Foundation Board of Directors.