We hear much these days about our ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture,” says the Jewish Press. But given that only about 2,500 Jews lived in the American colonies in 1776, it continues, “usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.” Turns out, however, there was at least one influential Jew at the time of the first official Thanksgiving in 1789. Gershom Mendes Seixas was the cantor and spiritual leader of New York City’s only synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, until it shut down operations during the Revolution, and he became the leader of a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he used his pulpit to speak out in support of General George Washington. When Washington was inaugurated as president, Seixas was one of the presiding clergy. “This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war,” says the Press. “It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.”
And when Thanksgiving became an official holiday that year, Seixas, back at Shearith Israel, preached that Jews were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government” and should try “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it,” which, says the Press, “is every bit as relevant to all of us 220 years later.”
Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.