The Revolutionary War and the Jews

While some Jews fought, others suffered at the hands of the British.

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British attacks forced residents, including Jews, from the cities of Newport, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston. Of the approximately 1,500 Jews scattered among the 13 colonies on the eve of the American Revolution, about 200 lived in Newport--the largest concentration of Jews in the colonies.

Aaron Lopez was one of the Newport Jews who opposed British rule and abandoned the city where they had developed roots and prospered. Lopez led his extended family and members of the Rivera and Mendes families, numbering nearly 70 people, to temporary settlement in Leicester, Massachusetts. The renowned synagogue was closed, and its spiritual leader, Isaac Touro, who professed Loyalist tendencies, sailed with his family to Jamaica where he lived out his life under British rule. According the diary of the Reverend Ezra Stiles, the few Jews remaining in Newport were "very officious as Informing against the Inhabitant--who are one + another frequently taken up + put in Gaol."

In New York, as the British fleet appeared in the harbor, Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas called his congregants to the Mill Street Synagogue. There he delivered a powerful patriotic address and shortly thereafter left the city for safety in Stratford, Connecticut. While most other patriotic Jews also left the city, a small number remained behind and, together with the few Loyalist Jews, kept the synagogue open. During the war, the congregation was led first by a Tory sympathizer and later by a Jewish Hessian officer who fought with the British and remained after the hostilities ended.

Like some other American families, some Jewish families were divided within themselves in their loyalties, David Franks was the King's sole agent in the northern colonies providing food and supplies to British troops; but other members of the Franks family, David Salisbury Franks and Isaac Franks, served as officers in the Continental Army.

For Jews, participation in the war marked the first time since their exile from Jerusalem that they could take their place alongside their Christian neighbors as equals in a fight for freedom. Jews were present at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and other battle sites throughout the colonies. Behind the scenes, they provided logistic support by equipping soldiers, shipping supplies, and raising funds. Ship owners such as Isaac Moses of Philadelphia outfitted privateers to harass British shipping, and their ships engaged in running the British blockade to provide necessary provisions to the needy Revolutionary forces.

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Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein is a writer, editor and teacher. A former school librarian in the Brookline, Massachusetts Public Schools, he has been teaching children's literature and history courses at Hebrew College for over twenty-five years. He is the series editor for the JPS Guides series published by the Jewish Publication Society.