Finding Acceptance in the New World
Encouraging signs that the nascent U.S. would welcome Jews
Like many immigrants to the New World, Jews arrived on the shores of what would become America for a variety of reasons, including religious freedom. Before independence, the states had various policies on the treatment of Jews and other religious minorities. After the United States was created and the Constitution ratified, however, Jews were afforded what the author of this piece calls elsewhere in his book "an unprecedented degree of 'equal footing'." Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).
A gala parade marking the ratification of the Constitution, held in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated this achievement [of equal treatment of Jews and other religious minorities in the Constitution]. It presented, marching together in one division, "the clergy of the different Christian denominations, together with the rabbi of the Jews [probably Jacob R. Cohen], walking arm in arm."
The famed physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, who witnessed the unprecedented spectacle, wrote that this first-ever ecumenical parade "was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion."
Though it apparently escaped his notice, when the ceremony concluded, Jews ate separately at a special kosher table prepared on their behalf. Reflecting English custom, this public expression of Jewish ritual behavior (even, one assumes, on the part of those who were not always so scrupulous) effectively defined the boundaries of interreligious relations from the synagogue community's official perspective. Much as Jewish leaders rejoiced at the "equal footing' that brought them politically into step with Christians under the banner of the Constitution, they exercised the right to eat apart, following the precepts of their faith, formulated to help preserve Jews as a group.
Washington & the Jews of Newport
The famed correspondence between Jews and George Washington went even further in defining the place of Judaism in the new nation. The address of the "Hebrew Congregation in Newport" to the president--composed for his visit to that city on August 17, 1790, following Rhode Island's ratification of the Constitution--paralleled other letters that Washington received from religious bodies of different denominations and followed a custom long associated with the ascension of kings.
Redolent with biblical and liturgical language, the address noted past discrimination against Jews, praised the new government for "generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship," and thanked God "for all of the blessings of civil and religious liberty" that Jews now enjoyed under the Constitution.