This Day in Jewish History / A Refuge for Persecuted Jews Is Founded - Almost

The colony of Ararat never materialized, but the story behind it remains one of the more curious blips in American-Jewish history.

On September 15, 1825, a ceremony was held in Buffalo, New York, marking the founding of Ararat, a colony meant to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews from around the world, and that was to be situated north of the city on an island in the Niagara River. The colony never did materialize, but the story behind it remains one of the more curious blips in American-Jewish history.

The man behind Ararat – the name, of course, comes from the mountaintop where Noah’s Ark rested while waiting for the flood waters to recede – was Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), a Philadelphia-born Jew whose career included public service as a U.S. diplomat in Tunis (from which he was recalled by Secretary of State James Monroe, who decided that Noah’s Jewishness was as a disability) and as sheriff of New York, playwright and journalist.

Noah’s vision of a shelter for the world’s endangered Jews was accompanied by his perception of himself as their savior. Yet his outlook also included an element of proto-Zionism. As early as 1818, Noah had determined that, "Never were prospects for the restoration of the Jewish nation to their ancient rights and dominion more brilliant than they are at present.” The world’s 7 million Jews, he averred, possessed “more wealth, activity, influence, and talents, than any body of people of their number on earth,” and he foresaw a time when they would “march in triumphant numbers, and possess themselves once more of [Palestine], and take their rank among the governments of the earth."

Noah’s concern for his people’s welfare, however, was prompted in part by a more self-serving belief that the creation of Ararat on Grand Island would present a real-estate bonanza for himself and the investors he hoped to attract. A year earlier, he had written to Peter B. Porter, a New York politician and businessman (and later U.S. secretary of war), who was one of the planners of the Erie Canal and at the time was buying up land along its course. (The canal, which opened a month after the public presentation of the Ararat idea, cut across almost the entire width of New York State, making it possible to navigate by water from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.)

Noah, writing to Porter on August 17, 1824, described his hopes for Ararat, and explained how a “small investment” of $10,000 by his correspondent could yield “immense profit” for the two of them.

“In laying off a City to contain 1,000 acres, divided into 1,000 building Lots, I shall have no difficulty in disposing of these 1,000 Lots, free of taxes for five years, at $100 each lot. And such will be the pressure and anxiety in Europe to obtain a lot of undisputed
title that the whole Island can be disposed of with ease … thus offering a happy & safe asylum to our people, and at the same time -- by & with their approbation & consent --realising a princely fortune.”

In the same letter, Noah acknowledged that there were those among his co-religionists who would scoff at his idea, principally out of fear that the arrival of Jews from Europe on American shores would bring those already there into disrepute. But Noah was convinced, he wrote, that “no man is a prophet in his own Country,” and that his own reputation in American life would help to sell the idea in Europe.

September 15, 1825, the day after Rosh Hashanah, was meant to be the moment of Ararat’s launching. Since there were not enough boats available to take all who were interested to a ceremony Grand Island, Noah rented St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo – the town’s only house of worship – to which he marched in the center of a procession of dignitaries, clergymen and Masons, from Buffalo’s Masonic lodge. (He was dressed in the supposed garb of a “Judge of Israel," which was, in fact, a costume, complete with gold medallion, borrowed from a nearby theater where it was worn by the character of Richard III.)

In a non-denominational service at the church, Noah proclaimed the plan for a “City of Refuge” to be built on Grand Island, which he explained would be a halfway home, intended for a “period of regeneration.” In America, “under the influence of perfect freedom,” the Jews could prepare themselves for a future time when they could return to Zion. As historian Jonathan Sarna describes it in his book “American Judaism,” Ararat was to be a “temporary resting place between tribulation and redemption.”

Peter Porter did not respond to Mordecai M. Noah’s correspondence in a timely fashion -- nor did the downtrodden Jews of Europe. The idea was ridiculed both at home and abroad (including by the grand rabbi of Paris), and by the end of 1825, Noah himself was advising friends not to invest in Ararat. The land that had been intended for the colony was soon sold off to a timber investor.

What remains of Ararat, aside from the tale itself, is a 136-kg cornerstone, inscribed in Hebrew with the Shema prayer, that had been unveiled at the St. Paul’s ceremony, and that spent most of the next century and a half moving from place to place – including the front lawn of Peter Porter’s home, for some time. Today it is on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Visitors to the area, which is adjacent to Niagara Falls, who want to explore the Ararat concept more deeply, can avail themselves of a walking tour of the virtual colony on Grand Island, created by a Canadian-American academic team calling itself “Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project."
 

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