The Makings of History / The Case of the Missing Letter

Original of letter from President George Washington to the Jeshuat Israel congregation, the oldest synagogue in the United States, resurfaces after years of obscurity.

The shoreline of Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States, is blessed with breathtakingly beautiful little coves; in the nature of things, you will find here some of the most luxurious homes in the world. The town's Orthodox synagogue is handsome too, and while it does not compare in grandeur to the tycoons' palatial residences, you cannot take away its historic uniqueness: There is no older synagogue anywhere in America. It was built in 1763, more than a hundred years after the first Jews settled in Newport. They were Sephardic Jews who threw in their lot with Rhode Island because what was to become the smallest state in the Union was known as a bastion of religious tolerance. The congregation called itself Jeshuat Israel. The synagogue building is named for their spiritual leader Isaac Touro.

Underneath the bimah (platform ) in the center of the prayer hall, congregation members dug a secret passageway, a likely indication that even in their new homeland they did not rule out the possibility of renewed persecution. But congregation Jeshuat Israel is mainly known for a famous letter it received in 1790 from President George Washington, which included the words: "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." These words, which have been quoted countless times since then, are considered the bill of rights of American Jews.

George Washington - Getty Images - 08072011
Getty Images

Washington's letter was born, as it goes, from politics. Ahead of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the representatives from Rhode Island were making noises of refusal; Washington did not need their votes to get the Constitution approved, but he wanted a unanimous vote. It was apparently mainly a matter of honor: Rhode Island agreed to sign in exchange for a presidential visit. Washington arrived in Newport as agreed, and the head of the Jewish community presented him with a letter of greeting containing words of praise and accolades, as Jews are wont to do when beseeching a ruler. Some of the nice things Washington wrote to congregation Jeshuat Israel were borrowed from the letter the head of the community had written to him.

Once a year the synagogue holds a public reading of the letter; last year it was read out with particular meaning, on the occasion of its 220th anniversary.

A few months later historian Jonathan Sarna said that he has no clue as to the whereabouts of Washington's original letter; what visitors to Touro Synagogue are shown is not the original. Sarna is considered the preeminent scholar of American Jewish history and his words prompted The Jewish Daily Forward to seek out the original letter.

This wasn't easy: Nobody knew where the letter was. The paper's reporter Paul Berger, who took it upon himself to solve the mystery, rummaged through archives, riffled the memories of exceedingly old folks, and found that the synagogue's original Sephardic congregation had disbanded at the beginning of the 19th century. Washington's letter apparently wound up in the possession of one of the heirs of the congregation leader who first received it.

At a certain point, possibly in 1949, the letter came into the hands of Morris Morgenstern, who is considered the epitome of the American Dream for many Jews: He started out as a shoe shiner and became a very wealthy man and philanthropist. It is unclear how much he paid for the letter, maybe $15,000. Today it is worth an estimated $5-10 million. Morgenstern loaned the letter to B'nai B'rith. For 50 years it hung in the organization's exhibition hall, but when they moved to smaller offices, no place was found for it. And so the letter wound up in a cardboard box, stored in a warehouse along with other cartons of B'nai B'rith documents.

The Forward's reporter was given permission to see it - on condition that he not present any questions, and so it was. As far as he could tell, the document, which is sensitive to light, temperature and humidity, is well preserved. If he had been allowed to ask anything, the reporter doubtless would have tried to ascertain Morgenstern's legal standing at the time that he acquired the letter. In 1950 Morgenstern was active in the Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue; if he was already active in the society in 1949, it is possible that he was obligated to purchase the letter for the synagogue, instead of for himself. Here's a developing story, as they say in America.