This Day in Jewish History

1813: A Quiet American Rabbi Is Born

Surinam-born Rabbi Jacques Judah Lyons helped found Mount Sinai Hospital, among other things.

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August 25, 1813, is the birthdate of Jacques Judah Lyons, a American congregational leader and historian who was active in a number of Jewish institutions in New York in the 19th century.

Jacques Judah Lyons was born in Surinam - also known as Dutch Guiana - to which his parents, Judah Eleazar Lyons and the former Mary Asser Levy, had immigrated a decade earlier from Philadelphia. He grew up in Parimaribo, the capital of Surinam, and learned Dutch, English, Hebrew and French, among other languages. Lyons also acquired a thorough Jewish education and spent three years as a cantor at the Surinam congregation Neve Shalom, before departing, in 1836, for his parents’ hometown.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Lyons was offered a job as cantor at a synagogue in Richmond, Virginia. Two years later, however, he was offered a position as minister at New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, America’s oldest synagogue, founded in 1654.

Lyons remained at Shearith Israel for 38 years, during which time he ran the congregation’s Talmud Torah (religious school) and headed its social-assistance organization. He also was among the founders of the Jews' Hospital, which later became Mount Sinai Hospital.

In a biographical note published by the American Jewish Historical Society after his death, Lyons was described in the following manner: “His appearance was commanding, his personality magnetic, and with all his strength he was a mild-mannered man, unobtrusive and notably courteous. He swayed his flock by persuasion and affection more than by authority. As was said in one of the notices published at the time of his death, ‘Truly he was the Jewish Bishop.’”

Lyons had a keen interest in history. Not only did he maintain a careful diary of his own life – including events at the synagogue and even the changing weather – but he became involved in studying American Jewish history. Together with Rabbi Abraham de Sola Pool, from Montreal, he wrote “A Jewish Calendar for Fifty Years,” which not only offered a long-range Hebrew calendar, but, more interesting, provided a history of a number of Jewish communities in North America and the Caribbean.

He also collected a large number of Jewish historical documents, which today are cataloged at the American Jewish Historical Society. They include records of Jewish cemeteries and of fundraising efforts at several different East Coast synagogues, as well as of circumcisions and marriages. They also include correspondence with George Washington about his thoughts on religious freedom and on the contributions of the Jews.

Jacques Judah Lyons died on August 15, 1877, shortly before Rosh Hashana. In his memory, his niece Emma Lazarus, also a member of Shearith Israel, wrote the poem “Rosh Hashanah, 5638.” In it, she described him as, “one / Who at his seed-plot toiled through rain and sun. / Morn found him not as one who slumbereth, / Noon saw him faithful, and the restful night / Stole o'er him at his labors to requite / The just man's service with the just man's death.”