Washington and the Jews

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

4 thoughts on “Washington and the Jews”

  1. Your post sparked a memory for me…seeing a letter from George Washington to the congregation in Charleston, SC.

    In 1790, President George Washington responded to a letter of congratulations to him by writing, “The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgment. May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation.” A replica of this letter can be viewed in the KKBE Museum. If memory serves, the museum is a room behind the ark.
    Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, (Holy Congregation House of God)
    is the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in the continental United States (after New York, Newport and Savannah).
    Today, KKBE has the second oldest synagogue building In the United States and the oldest in continuous use. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980. Charleston is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States.


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