George Washington's lasting gift to generations of Jews
In most of Colonial-era New England, it would have been about as hard to find a Jewish family as a grove of palm trees. But when George Washington visited Newport, R.I., in August 1790, the president found not just one Jewish family, but a Hebrew congregation with its own synagogue. They offered him a warm welcome to their community through a letter written by the leader of their congregation, Moses Sexias.
Four days later, Washington penned a cordial response, assuring them they could enjoy full citizenship in the new United States of America - welcome news to a community whose ancestors had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, Jews still worship at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, and every August they - along with other supporters of religious freedom - file into the 18th-century Georgian building to read Washington's letter and to reflect on his words once again.
"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of," Washington wrote, "as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights." He also declared that the government gave "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
After centuries of persecution in Europe, Jews welcomed Washington's message of equality, which set the stage for the US to become home to the largest, most prosperous Jewish community in the world.
Washington's outreach to Jews was revolutionary, notes David Logan, dean of Roger Williams University's law school. America's Founding Fathers were unique in the world when they wrote freedom of religion into the laws of the new country, he says. "It's that pluralism and heterogeneity that make [America] a remarkable place."
In the spirit of that pluralism, this year's letter-reading event was officiated and attended by people of a variety of faiths.