Washington's First Letter to Jews Is Lost

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Just a little more than a year after George Washington became America’s first president, Levi Sheftall, a Jew from Savannah, wrote him a letter. Sheftall, president of Congregation Mickve Israel, congratulated Washington on behalf of his fellow Savannah Jews, who had high hopes for religious freedom in their new country.

But as if to prove that even in its infancy, American Jewry was rife with jealousy and infighting, this seemingly innocuous letter caused an uproar.

Why was Savannah first, Jews in other communities wanted to know. Congregations in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C. and Richmond, Va. soon remedied the matter, sending a joint letter of congratulation to Washington. But not before the Jews of Newport, R.I., had sent a letter of their own. The rest is history.

Washington’s famous reply to the Jews of Newport, in which he vowed that America would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” continues to resonate today as an American pledge of religious freedom, even though the document disappeared from public view 10 years ago. As the Forward reported earlier this year, it is owned by a private foundation and currently held in an art storage facility in suburban Maryland....

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