Gershom Mendes Seixas

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Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, c. 1784

Gershom Mendes Seixas (January 15, 1745 – July 2, 1816) was the first native-born Jewish religious leader in the United States. An American patriot, he served as the hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City for about five decades. The first American Jewish clergyman to give a sermon in English, Mendes Seixas became known for his public spirit as well as defense of religious liberty, with activities as varied as assisting during the inauguration of President George Washington to helping found what later became Columbia University.[1]

Early and family life[edit]

His father Isaac Mendes Seixas (1709-1780) was a merchant born in Lisbon who emigrated to Barbados and then the United States, living in New York circa 1730 and moving to Newport, Rhode Island around 1765. He married Rachel Franks, who bore seven children, including Gershom. Isaac Mendes Seixas signed the Non-Importation Agreement Act, one of a series of acts of resistance which led to the American Revolutionary War.[2] His eldest brother Moses Mendes (1744–1809), a merchant, helped organize the Bank of Rhode Island in 1796, became the president of the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and led the congregation's welcome for President George Washington. His younger brother Abraham Mendes (1751–1799), was an officer in the Continental Army. Another brother, Benjamin Mendes (1748–1817), was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.

Seixas married Elkalah Cohen (1749-85) in 1775. After her death, he married Hannah Manuel in 1789. He had 15 children, of whom the most famous would be David Seixas, who established the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Philadelphia, and was among the first to discover efficient ways of burning anthracite coal.

Career[edit]

In 1766, Gershom Mendes Seixas became the leader of Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese congregation of New York City, and remained its rabbi for about a half century. Although not an ordained Rabbi, he served as Hazzan and religious leader to the congregation, and was among the first Jewish communal leaders who was born and educated in the United States. As the British fleet approached New York Bay in August, 1776, Mendes Seixas preached an emotional sermon in English in which he stated that that day's synagogal services might be the last held in the historic edifice. His Patriot loyalties helped influence his congregation to close its synagogue as the British approached, and Mendes Seixas decided to leave New York rather than continue under British rule. He took the scrolls of the Law and other ceremonial items as he left for Stratford, Connecticut, where several members of the congregation joined him. In 1780, patriots who had fled to Philadelphia wanted to establish a permanent congregation, and asked Mendes Seixas to officiate. He thus helped establish Congregation Mikveh Israel. Mendes Seixas invited many important politicians to the dedication, including the governor of Pennsylvania, and would invoke the blessing of Almighty God on "the Members of these States in Congress assembled and on his Excellency George Washington, Commander-General of these Colonies."[3]

While living in Philadelphia, Mendes Seixas became a zealous defender of religious liberty. He and several members of his congregation addressed the State's Council of Censors in December 1783, opposing Pennsylvania's adopting a religious test as a qualification for office. He characterized such as "unjust to the members of a persuasion that had always been attached to the American cause and given a support to the country, some in the Continental army, some in the militia, and some by cheerfully paying taxes and sustaining the popular cause."[4]

Mendes Seixas returned to New York on March 23, 1784 and resumed his former position at the reopened Shearith Israel. He was one of the first ministers to preach a regular Thanksgiving Day sermon.[5] Mendes Seixas was among the fourteen clergymen participating during George Washington's inauguration as first president of the United States. In 1787 Seixas became a trustee of Columbia College in his hometown and remained such until 1815 (the only Jew so honored in over a century). Mendes Seixas' name also appears as one of the incorporators in the college's charter. In 1802 he helped found a charitable organization known as "Hebra Hased Ve Amet."[6] He also served on the Board of Regents of what became New York University and as a trustee of the Humane Society.[7]

Mendes Seixas was a friend of many other religious leaders (although before the Revolutionary War, many held Tory sympathies) and frequently was asked to speak to Christian congregations. He later supported the War of 1812, as well as aid to those suffering from those hostilities.

Death and legacy[edit]

Gershom Mendes Seixas died on July 2, 1816 and was buried in his congregation's first cemetery, then in the Bowery, now Chinatown.[8] A memorial sermon delivered by Emanuel Nunes Carvalho of Congregation Mikveh Israel and published in Philadelphia became the first Jewish sermon printed in the United States.[9] Congregation Shearith Israel still displays a tablet in his honor. Today, members of the Seixas family are still leaders of the American Sephardic community.

References[edit]

  • Joseph Heckelman, The First Jews in the New World, Jay Street Publishers, 2004.
  • David Pool and Naomi De Sola, An Old Faith in the New World, Columbia University Press, 1954.