The history of the Jews in America began before the United States was an independent country. It actually began in 1654 with the arrival of twenty-three refugees to New Amsterdam (later to be known as New York), who were fleeing from the Portuguese who had conquered Recife, Brazil. By the time the colonies fought the War of Independence in 1776, there were about 2,000 Jews living in America at the time. Though they were few in number, they played a major role in ratifying the Constitution of the United States of America.
The majority of the earliest settlers were Puritans. Beginning with the Mayflower, 16,000 Puritans migrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony over the next twenty years, and many more settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Like their cousins back in England, these American Puritans strongly identified with both the historical traditions and customs of the ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament. They viewed their emigration from England as a virtual reenactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
To them, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Native Americans were the ancient Canaanites. They viewed themselves as the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower first landed. It was initially conceived as a day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and it was to be a day of fasting, introspection, and prayer.
Previously, during the Puritan Revolution in England, the Puritan identification with the Bible was so strong that some Puritan extremists sought to replace the English common law with biblical laws of the Old Testament but were prevented from doing so.
In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies, and this was exactly what these early colonists set out to do. The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was determined by Scripture alone. The New Haven legislators adopted a legal code—the Code of 1655—which contained some seventy-nine statutes, half of which contained biblical references, virtually all of them taken from the Hebrew Bible.
Jewish Influence on American Education
The Hebrew Bible played a central role in the educational system of America. In addition to Harvard, many other colleges and universities were established under the auspices of various Protestant sects: Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, King’s College (later to be known as Colombia), John Hopkins, Dartmouth, etc.
The Bible played a central role in the curriculum of all these institutions of higher learning, with both Hebrew and Bible studies offered as required courses. So popular was the Hebrew Language in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew.
Bible study and Hebrew were course requirements in virtually all these colleges, and students had the option of delivering commencement speeches in Hebrew, Latin, or Greek. Many of these colleges even adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal. When Harvard was founded, the Hebrew language was taught along with Latin and Greek. Also, a significant number of the constitutional framers were products of these American universities.
Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the Old and New Testaments, but also had some working knowledge of the Hebrew language. Most remarkable of all, a motion was made in the Continental Congress that Hebrew become the official language of the land. But needless to say, the motion was lost.
There were probably fewer than 3,000 Jews in the United States when George Washington became president. During the colonial period, Jewish settlers in America had first encountered much of the same kind of discrimination and legal restrictions that they had been accustomed to in Europe. Nevertheless, by the time of the American Revolution, they had gradually won civil, political, and religious rights that far exceeded anything that their fellow religionists in Europe enjoyed.
By the end of the Revolution, Jews had been chosen not only to local posts in some cities, but had also been selected for more responsible positions in many parts of the country. There was no inclination to bar these people from public office. The Jews of Philadelphia led by Jonas Phillips in 1783–1784 protested the requirement that members of the general assembly take an oath affirming belief in the New Testament.
A Revision to the Constitution
This led to the revision of the Constitution of Pennsylvania a few years later, explicitly barring the disqualification on account of religious sentiments of any person who acknowledges the Being of a God and future state of rewards and punishments. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia affirms that this petition proved later on to be instrumental in the revision of the Pennsylvania State Constitution in such a manner as to abolish the religious test oath.
On September 7, 1787, Jonas Phillips, a founder of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Synagogue, also petitioned the framers at the federal Constitutional Convention:
It is well known among all citizens of the 13 United States that the Jews have been true and faithful Whigs, and during the late contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lives and fortunes. They have supported the cause and bravely fought and bled for liberty which they cannot enjoy. Therefore if the honorable convention shall in their wisdom think fit and alter the said oath as found in the altered Pennsylvania Constitution and leave out the words to viz: and I do acknowledge the Scripture of the New Testament to be given by divine inspiration, the Israelites (Jews) will think themselves happy to live under a government where all religious societies are on an equal footing. Your most devoted obedient Servant, Jonas Phillips Philadelphia, 24th Ellul, 5547, or September 1787.
Phillips’s petition undoubtedly bore weight with the framers, as did the personal relationships many of the framers shared with the Jews. Under the heading, “Jewish Influence on the Framing of the Constitution,” The Jewish People’s Almanac brags about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison’s personal relationship with the Jews. Had the Constitutional Convention been open to the public, more than one eminent Jew would have had no difficulty in mingling on terms of equality with many of the best-known delegates.
It is important to note here that Benjamin Franklin, the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, numbered many Philadelphia Jews among his friends. He was sufficiently friendly with them to be one of the contributors to the building fund for Philadelphia’s first synagogue, Mikveh Israel. Not only that, but Samuel Keimer, an English printer who was one Franklin’s first employers, was a Jew. To George Washington who presided over the sessions, Jews were of course no strangers.
During the Revolution he had on his personal staff Manuel Mordecai Noah of South Carolina, David Salisbury Franks of Philadelphia, and Major Benjamin Nones, a French volunteer. In his General Orders for April 18, 1783, announcing the cessation of hostilities with Great Britain, George Washington congratulated his soldiers “of whatever condition they may be,” for, among other things, having “assisted in protecting the rights of human nature and establishing an asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religion.
The “bosom of America,” he declared a few months later, was “open to receive…the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.
It is recorded that the following year, in 1784, when asking his aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman to secure a carpenter and a bricklayer for his Mount Vernon estate, he said:
If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists. I had always hoped that this land might be become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind; to whatever nation they might belong.
Washington emphasized that religious freedom is something more than mere toleration of opposing and differing religions. The most famous of the exchanges that American Jews had with President Washington was on August 17, 1790, by the Newport congregation who welcomed Washington to the city and then declared:
Deprived as we have hitherto been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now…behold a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance but generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship-deeming everyone, of whatever nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine…. For all the blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of days.
In his reply, George Washington told the Newport Jews:
They have a right to applaud themselves for having given 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 was by 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…. May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Washington’s statement has been called “immortal” and “memorable,” naturally delighting the Newport congregation and the Jewish congregations elsewhere in the United States. Historian Rabbi Morris Aaron Gutstein, best known for his work on the history of the Jewish community of colonial Newport, called it one of the “most outstanding expressions on religious liberty and equality in America” and insisted that it “will be quoted by every generation in which religious liberty is cherished.
Ted Weiland, Bible Law Versus The United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective (Scottsbluff, NE: Mission to Israel Ministries, 2012)
Rabbi Ken Spiro, World Perfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Simcha Press, 2002)
Jonathan D. Sarna, Benny Kraut, Samuel K. Joseph, eds., Jews and the Founding of the Republic (New York: Markus Weiner Publishing, 1985)
Salomon, Haym, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 Vols. (New York: The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Inc., 1941)
John F. Boller, George Washington and Religion (Dallas: SMU Press, 1963).
Os Guinness, Character Counts: Leadership Qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn (Michigan: Baker Books, 1999)