On July 2, 1816, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first Jewish cleric in the United States, died.
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Seixas was not an ordained rabbi, but he served as religious leader of Shearith Israel, in New York, the country’s first synagogue.
Gershom Mendes Seixas (pronounced “Sey-shus”) was born January 17, 1745 (some sources say 1746) in New York. His father was Isaac Mendes Seixas, the descendant of Portuguese Jewish conversos who had fled for London, and who himself came from there to New York in 1730.
There Isaac married Rachel Levy, the native-born daughter of an Ashkenazic merchant family, whose father was one of the leaders of Shearith Israel, which had been established in 1654.
At the time Gershom was growing up, there were some 2,000 Jews in the 13 British colonies that were to become the United States, but none of the half-dozen synagogues dispersed throughout them had a rabbi. In his desire to become a “minister,” as Jewish religious leaders referred to themselves at the time, he attended Talmud Torah as a boy at Shearith Israel, and later studied with the congregation’s hazan (cantor) and on his own. There is also evidence that he participated in Jewish learning by correspondence with the rabbis of London’s Bevis-Marks Synagogue.
On July 3, 1768, the young Seixas, now certified as a cantor, shochet (ritual slaughterer) and mohel (ritual circumciser), and licensed in the colony to perform weddings and funerals, was appointed the minister of Shearith Israel, the congregation’s sole religious official.
In August 1776, it was he who convinced a majority of the synagogue’s board that they should vacate New York, rather than remain there under the occupation of the British army then advancing on the city from Long Island. Taking the synagogue’s Torah scrolls and other ritual objects with him, Seixas moved to Stratford, Connecticut, to the home of his in-laws, before moving, four years later, to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia Seixas was elected hazan of Congregation Mikve Israel, the number of whose congregants had swelled with other war refugees who had streamed into the city, the first capital of the United States. In 1783, he was part of a committee of Pennsylvania Jews who petitioned the state legislature, without success, to overturn a law requiring all religious officials – including Jews – to swear their belief in the divine inspiration of the New Testament. It is in the formal protest that he helped draft in the committee’s name that Seixas is first publicly referred to as “Rabbi.”
Return to New York
In 1784, the British now having decamped from New York, Seixas led his congregants back to that city from Philadelphia. There they rejoined those Tories who had remained behind in Shearith Israel’s Mill Street structure, and began rebuilding the congregation. That same year, he was named a member of the board of trustees of Columbia College, whose charter required representation from all of the “major” religious denominations. (The portrait of Seixas commissioned by the college at the time still hangs today at Columbia University.) He also became a regent of the State University of New York.
In 1789, Seixas was one of 14 clergymen who participated in the inauguration, in New York, of George Washington as first president of the United States. Gershom’s older brother Moses was at the time the president of Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island. It was he who, the following year, famously corresponded with Washington, both of them using the phrase “to bigotry no sanction” to characterize what was to be the attitude of the government of the United States toward minority religious groups.
Gershom Mendes Seixas served as minister of Shearith Israel until his death, in 1816. He also saw himself as a pastor to Jews living in more remote parts of the country, and as late as 1811, he undertook a tour of small Jewish communities in New England and Canada, performing weddings and circumcisions, and the like.
When in 1810, the historian and writer Hannah Adams, who was then working on her two-volume work on the history of the Jews, approached Seixas and asked him, among other things, if the Jews experienced discrimination in the United States, he responded with some indignation: “My dear Madam, there is one thing which I would wish you to notice -- that the Justice and righteousness of Providence is manifested in the dispersion of His People -- for they have never been driven from any one country without finding an Asylum in another… and this Country – the United States of America, is perhaps the only place where Jews have not suffered persecution, but rather the reverse – for through the mercies of a Benign Judge, we are encouraged and indulged with every right of citizenship.”