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The First Rabbi in America

Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas

In the 21st century, it would be unthinkable for the Jews of North America to find themselves without qualified, knowledgeable, and trained rabbis. But two centuries earlier, the North American Jewish landscape was dramatically different. The entire continent was home to less than 3,000 Jews, and in the few synagogues that existed, such as those in Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia and Newport, Rhode Island; it was the chazzanim who also performed the general religious duties that would otherwise be carried out by a rabbi.

Description: Portrait of Rabbi Seixes in his younger years

It was not until the mid-19th century that America attracted its first permanent European rabbi who had semicha from a recognized PosekPrior to the 1840s, the European rabbis who took positions in North America would not remain there for long, as they were unwilling to live in a country devoid of Mosdos HaTorah and without learned colleagues with whom to speak. It was into this world that, in 1768, R’ Gershom Mendes Seixas (pronounced Say-shus) was elected to the position of ‘hazzan’ at New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel, at the young age of 23.

His grandfather, Miguel da Silva, was a Portuguese Marrano, who upon realizing that the Inquisition’s agents were on his trail for practicing Judaism, smuggled himself out of Portugal and fled to London in 1725.1Cecil Roth: A History of the Marranos. Once in London, he reverted to his pre-Marrano name of Abraham Mendes Seixas and was elected to membership in the Mahamad, the lay leadership of the Sefardi kehilla. His son, Isaac Mendes Seixas, would leave London for America in the 1730s and marry Rachel Levy there in 1741.2De Sola Pool – Portraits in Stone.

Jews initially emigrated to America to seek refuge from persecution, but subsequent settlers came for a variety of other motives. For one, New York’s liberal laws allowed Jews to go into a trade without restrictions. Thus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the American Jewish community was made up mainly of merchants, with New York accounting for 250-300 of them. They made up two percent of New York’s total population. The one existing synagogue, Shearith Israel, followed the Sefardi minhagim and nusach despite the fact that a majority of its members were Ashkenazim. The congregation was very much a kehillah, serving as the center of Jewish life for this tightly-knit group. They gathered there to celebrate Shabbos and Yomim Tovim and share life events together: marriages, births, and

Description: Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

Isaac Seixas’ seven children would become part of this American Jewish environment. Benjamin Seixas became an officer of the Militia in New York at the outbreak of the Revolution. He was also one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Another brother, Abraham Mendez Seixas, was a colonel in the Continental Army. The eldest brother Moses was the President of the Touro Synagogue in Newport (presently the oldest synagogue in North America) and famously wrote a letter of congratulation to George Washington regarding his inauguration, to which General Washington sent an appreciative reply.

Gershom Mendes Seixas dedicated himself to strengthening Judaism and was at the core of the community’s effort to maintain a distinctive Jewish identity amidst the tolerance and welcoming atmosphere of surrounding American society. This was a new challenge, far different from the European experience which most of the immigrants had left behind.

Description: Shearith Israel Synagogue – often called The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

The young chazzan took to his job quickly. Without any formal training or role model, he grew into the role of Shearith Israel’s spiritual leader, teacher, supervisor of kashrus, performer of marriages (often writing the kesubos), and officiator at funerals. Increasingly he was referred to as “minister” and sometimes even as “rabbi,” though he lacked semicha. However, he corresponded regularly with Rabbonim in Europe, especially those in London.

He was also a mohel and served in this capacity throughout his life, winning praise from a local doctor for his surgical expertise even at the age of seventy. The shortage of capable mohalim meant that a child would often not undergo Bris Milah on the eighth day and R’ Seixas’ correspondence indicates that it was not unusual for two weeks to pass before the operation. We even find a reference to the circumcision of a seven-month-old baby. Indeed at times, he may have been the only mohel in the Northeast at one time, when he traveled as far as Montreal to fulfill this duty.4Letter to Sarah Kursheedt, undated (ca. March, 1814).

Although quite happy with the work he was doing, the young Seixas was unable to manage on his annual salary, a mere eighty pounds, and a raise became necessary to facilitate his impending marriage. Hence, in January of 1775, he applied for an increase in pay, which set off the first of a long number of haggles over salary. R’ Seixas actually had to quit for a full month before the trustees of the congregation compromised with his demands. On March 29, his salary was raised to 120 pounds and on September 6, 1775, he married Elkaleh Myers Cohen.5Gershom Mendes Seixas: His Religious Calling, Outlook and Competence T Kessner.

When the Revolution broke out in 1776, the Jews had to choose whether to support the British Crown or the American insurgents in the Colonies.  Whereas Sefardi Jews almost all rallied to the American cause, the Ashkenazim were divided in their loyalties, some remaining with the Crown, others joining the emerging republic. New York remained the headquarters of the British during the war and Jews like all New Yorkers, had to decide whether to stay or abandon their property and houses.

Title: George Washington
Artist: Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
Date: 1796
Notes: This portrait was based on the uncompleted Antheneum portrait by Stuart; the uncompleted portions were filled in by Peale. This copy has been published in pre-1923 materials, including p. 442 of The Life of George Washington and p. 79 of Early American Painters.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although it must have been a difficult decision for R’ Seixas to support the Revolution, since it would close down the synagogue and for all practical purposes end the community infrastructure, his loyalty to the American cause was never in doubt. He preached a sermon in English during which he led the community in prayer for the success of General Washington and the Congress. He closed by noting that this would possibly be the last service to be held there and then removed the Sifrei Torah for safekeeping.6Rav Gershom Mendez Seixas – The Patriot Jewish Minister N Taylor Phillips – 1905.

Along with many members of Shearith Israel, he eventually moved to Philadelphia, which had hitherto struggled to form a proper kehilla. He was employed as their Rabbi, and during his tenure (in which Philadelphia became the largest Jewish community) he was instrumental in the opening of a permanent shul in 1782, which seated 200 people.

Despite his emigration from New York, he did return there on at least two occasions to respond to a religious call. He performed two weddings, in 1777 and 1779, in one of which the groom was a Hessian soldier named Alexander Zunz who had come to fight on behalf of the British.

Eventually, in 1784, he returned to New York, bringing with him the Sifrei Torah he had carried out of the shul in 1776. R’ Seixas resumed all his duties, but as time went on, he was called upon to build other elements of religious Jewish life. He examined applicants for the position of shochet and functioned as Mashgiach in supervising the practice of shechita. He also ministered to Jews in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

At times, he was called upon to rule on halachic questions. Most such questions were sent overseas, but some requiring a more immediate response were directed to R’ Seixas.  He was aided in this area by his scholarly son-in-law, Yitzchak Baer Kursheedt, who had received his Jewish education in the yeshiva of Rav Nosson Adler in Frankfurt, and was probably the most learned Jew in the United States at the time (despite being a layman). In their correspondence, numerous Jewish topics were discussed, including quotations of relevant texts in Hebrew. Kursheedt would reply to his father-in-law’s letters entirely in Hebrew.

Two references to halachic decisions in R’ Seixas’ own letters, both centering on the issue of mourning, indicate a familiarity with the sources that govern that area of Halacha.  In the first case, he quotes chapter and verse (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 340:18, Hilchos Keri’a). The other reference is a quote from the Sefer Maharil.7Rav Gershom Mendez Seixas – The Patriot Jewish Minister N Taylor Phillips – 1905. “It is often said that a Rabbi is remembered for his drashos.”

Amongst those R’ Seixas subsequently printed, we find a number dealing with the study of Torah. In one, he exhorts his congregants regarding the mitzvah Vehagisa bo yomam valayla8Yehoshua 1:8.[/mfn]–You shall recite it day and night.8Manuscript in AJHS.

And in another, he spoke quite forcefully of the need to accept both the Written and Oral Law:

The literary writings and abilities of our ancient sages, are altogether corroborating proofs of divine revelation, as handed down to us, from our great and wise legislator, through the prophets to the great Sanhedrin and conveyed by them to the heads of the Great Synagogue. The exposition and explanation of our Holy Law are only to be found in these writings and many passages that appear to be contradictory… in the written law, are in the oral law thoroughly reconciled and made to agree.

Even events occurring to the Jews of Europe did not escape his attention or comment. In January 1807, R’ Seixas delivered a sermon on Napoleon’s summoning of the Sanhedrin.

—under the auspices of the most powerful potentate of Europe, he has collected the most learned of our Rabbonim, to assemble in his Metropolis, to form a Sanhedrin… At present everything appears in a favorable train, but none can say with precision, how it will terminate. Let us pray that the G-d of Israel may so direct them, that they may not be involved in difficulty and may be able to avert every possible evil.

Description: Rabbi Seixes in his elderly years.

His personal life saw him marry a second time, after the demise of his first spouse. Fourteen children would result from these two marriages between the years 1778-1807.9Ibid. N Taylor.

More than a dozen letters written by him to his eldest daughter Sarah and his son-in-law in Richmond, Virginia – between March 1813 and May 24, 1815 – are extant. They provide a wealth of personal insights into his life, family, and commitments. In accord with the custom of the day, no envelope was used, the paper being triple-folded and sealed, and the name and address of the recipient written on the outside of the paper. In keeping with the delicacy and formality of the day, the address always reads Mr I. B. Kursheedt, Merchat, Richmond, Va., although the salutation at the head of the letter is addressed to “My dear children.”  The style skips from subject to subject, from grave to cheerful, from religious in nature to humorous.

To send a letter from New York to Richmond cost twenty cents at the time, and its delivery was subject to the uncertainties of connection through stagecoach or sailing vessel, which depended on the weather and the state of roads. Therefore, full use was made of every inch of paper.  Margins were neglected, and if by any chance a margin had been left, it was filled with some microscopically written postscripts. It is interesting to observe that R’ Gershom Mendes Seixas, the Sefardi Rabbi of a Sefardi shul, often used Ashkenazi wording, and he seems to take delight in using such terms as Shul, Choson, and Kugel!

R’ Seixas’ letters cover the full cycle of the Jewish year.  On one particular Pesach, he wrote to his daughter Sally, “I have got my hundredweight of Matzohs and sugar.”  Other letters carry references to Shavuos, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, and Purim and it is clear from these letters, that the Yamim Tovim were appropriately integrated into the religious calendar of the kehillah.

Naturally enough, the letters furnish a rich store of information about communal affairs. The community scandals distress him deeply, but as a principle, he would never interfere in a dispute which got carried into court.  Shul news fills a considerable part of the letters. Thus, we learn the names of those who davened at the Amud during Yom Kippur of 1814, which included a mix of Sefardi and Ashkenazi baalei tefillah.

On the political front, he often represented the community.  Thus, for the inauguration of President Washington in New York, in 1789, he was asked to participate alongside 13 other clergymen.  Thousands of copies of his sermon were printed and sold, but he did not keep the royalties for himself, donating them instead to a fund for widows and orphans of men who had died in the War.  When Thanksgiving became an official holiday, he was one of the first to establish the annual Thanksgiving sermon.10Tablet magazine – 2009.

His maiden speech for this occasion occurred on November 26th, 1789. It was a stirring address given in shul, which was then located on William Street (formerly Mill Street):

It is incumbent on us as Jews, seeing that we are the chosen and special treasure of G-d, to be more circumspect in our conduct – inasmuch as we are this day, living examples of His Divine Power and Unity… For this purpose, let me then recommend to you a serious consideration of the several duties set forth this Day: to enter into a self-examination; to relinquish your prejudices against each other; to subdue your passions; to live as Jews ought to do – in brotherhood and amity with all our neighbors, ‘to seek peace and pursue it.’ So shall it be well with us, both here and hereafter, which G-d in His infinite mercy, will grant to us all!”  

His sermons, as well as his positive demeanor, honesty, and humility gained him the respect of Jew and gentile alike and he was asked to become a trustee of Columbia College, the only Jew to be so honored for many years. It was a duty he carried out for 30 years.11The Levy and Seixas families – De Sola Pool.

R’ Seixas’ ability to write Hebrew is seen from a manuscript copy of a Hebrew speech he wrote for Sampson Simson when the latter graduated from Columbia College in 1800, becoming the first Jew to receive a degree from that institution (Simson would go on to found the Mount Sinai Hospital).

His devotion to public duty included a number of pioneering chesed projects. During the 1700s, he was instrumental in saving the Jewish cemetery at Chatham Square, New York, and in 1802 he helped to establish the Hesed Va’Emet society as well as the Hebrew Relief Association for impoverished families. These are respectively, the oldest Jewish burial and charitable societies in the USA.12Wikipedia.

When R’ Seixas died, his levaya was publicized in the local press and he was buried in the same New Bowery cemetery at Chatham Square that he had rescued many years prior, which is presently in Chinatown.  The text of the gravestone, now rendered illegible by the passage of years, read:     

For the memory of Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, who for 50 years faithfully performed the duties of hazzan of this congregation. He died on 2nd July 1816, in his 71st year.

Every year during Memorial Day Services, a military guard of honor places an American flag on his grave, as America acknowledges the patriotism and the services rendered by its first Rabbi. But his real legacy was in diligently providing a framework for Judaism for over half a century, during America’s early years, and ensuring that Yiddishkeit would not become diluted in the heady mix of newly found freedom and opportunity. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

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