Jonas Phillips

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Jonas Phillips (1736–1803) was the first of the Phillips family to settle in America. A founder of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, Phillips was the father of twenty-one children and the grandfather of Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish Commodore in the United States Navy.[1]

Childhood and emigration[edit]

Phillips was born in 1736 in Germany. The place of his birth has been given as either Buseck or Frankfort-on-the-Main; he was the son of Aaron Phillips. He emigrated to America from London in November 1756. Working as an Indentured servant servant he lived in Charleston, S.C., where he was employed by indigo grower Moses Lindo. Until 1759, when he became a freeman and moved to Albany.

He moved to Albany, and then to New York City, where he became a merchant. By 1760, Phillips had joined a lodge of Freemasons in New York. According to researcher, Jonas left Albany with the intent of securing an introduction to Rebecca Mendez Machado, a Sephardic Jew (see Machado).[2]

The American Revolution[edit]

Phillips was an ardent supporter of the Non-Importation Agreement in 1770, and at the outbreak of the American Revolution, he favored the Patriot cause. In 1776 he used his influence in the New York congregation to close the doors of the synagogue and leave New York rather than continue under the British. The building was abandoned. Together with the majority of the congregation, Phillips and his family moved to Philadelphia, where he continued in business until 1778. In that year he joined the Revolutionary Army, serving in the Philadelphia Militia under Colonel Bradford..

The Yiddish Code[edit]

In July 28, 1776, Jonas sent a letter to a relative and business correspondent of his in Holland, Gumpel Samson by way of the Dutch Island of St. Eustatius. The letter begins by discussing his last letter and other business matters. He moves on to discuss the conflict with England and laconically mentions that the Americans have 100,000 soldiers to the British 25,000. He finishes the letter with an appendix of items he want sent to America so he may sell them.[3] There are two important things about this letter. First, Jonas enclosed within the letter a newly minted copy of the Declaration of Independence. And secondly, Jonas wrote the letter in Yiddish. Since at war with Britain Jonas would have expected the letter to be intercepted, but by writing in Yiddish they would not be able to read it. The British did intercept the letter and not knowing in language it was written concluded it was in code.[3]

Civil Rights for Jews[edit]

In a petition dated September 7, 1787, Jonas addressed the [Constituitonal Convention]to avoid a Christian religious test for Federal office holders.[4]

Other Jewish activities[edit]

When Congregation Mikveh Israel was established in Philadelphia, Phillips was one of its active founders, and was its president at the consecration of its synagogue in 1782. After the Revolution he moved to New York, but soon returned to Philadelphia, where he continued to reside until his death.

Death and burial[edit]

Phillips died at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 29, 1803. His remains were interred at New York in the cemetery on New Bowery of Congregation Shearith Israel. His widow survived until 1831.

See also[edit]



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