This week (6 Tammuz) we commemorate the Hashcabah of Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first minister of Mikveh Israel, who died July 2, 1816. Rev. Seixas was born on January 14, 1745 in New York City, to Isaac Mendes Seixas and Rachel Levy. Rachel Levy was the daughter of Moses Levy, who was one of the most prominent merchants in New York at the time. Her brother was Nathan Levy, whose request for a parcel of land for a burial ground in Philadelphia in 1740 is considered to be the origins of Congregation Mikveh Israel, as the starting of a community often begins with the establishment of a sacred burial place. He was thus the first American-born minister of Shearith Israel, and one of the few American-born ministers of Mikveh Israel to the present day.
It’s interesting to note that Gershom’s mother, Rachel Levy, was Ashkenazi, which made Gershom half Sephardi and Half Ashkenazi, mirroring the makeup of both the congregations in New York and Philadelphia. Seixas became the minister of Shearith Israel in July, 1768 at the age of 23. He had been born and raised in the Shearith Israel community. His teacher and mentor, Joseph Jessurun Pinto had served the New York congregation for 8 years before he suddenly had to leave for Europe in 1766. He later became the minister of the Sephardi community in Hamburg. After Isaac Cohen Da Silva served for a brief 2-year term, the Jewish community in New York, numbering only 300 people, unanimously elected the young Gershom Seixas as hazzan. Seixas served as the spiritual leader of the congregation, and also as the supervisor of Kashrut, performed all marriages and funerals, was the mohel, and for a time served as the shohet – the ritual slaughterer for the congregation.
At age 30, Seixas married Elkalah Cohen on September 6, 1775. Together they had 3 children over the next 10 years: Benjamin, who died unmarried; Sarah Abigail, who married Israel B. Kursheedt; and Rebecca Mendes, who also never married. Elkalah passed away in October, 1785. He then married Hannah Manuel on November 1, 1786, with whom he had 11 additional children. She was only 20 years old at the time of the marriage, and survived her husband by 40 years, living well into her 90th year. One of their children, David Mendes Seixas, was the founder of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Philadelphia, and was also a pioneer in discovering ways to burn anthracite coal.
Rev. Seixas was a strong advocate of American Independence, and has been given the nickname, The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution. In 1775, with the British Army fast approaching New York City, Seixas persuaded a majority of the congregation to close Shearith Israel rather than continue operating under the coming British occupation of Manhattan. He then packed up the Torah scrolls and other artifacts and books and moved them, along with his family, to his father-in-law’s home in Stratford, CT. In 1780, Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia invited Seixas to become the minister of the congregation. He arrived on June 6, and immediately began helping to create an established Jewish community in Philadelphia.
With the influx of members of Shearith Israel, including the leaders of the New York Jewish community, the number of Jews in the city grew from about one hundred, to over a thousand people. The New Yorkers, including Jonas Phillips, Hayman Levy, Gershom’s brother Benjamin Seixas, Simon Nathan, and Isaac Moses, used their experience at Shearith Israel to work with the Jewish leaders in Philadelphia, including Michael and Bernard Gratz, and Haym Salomon who had arrived some two years prior, to establish a form of prayer, a method of government, and a system of keeping records for the nascent Mikveh Israel. A Board of Adjuntos and officers were elected, and the congregation then began the project to design and build its first synagogue building. Seixas led the construction to its completion and carefully planned the consecration ceremony which was held in time for Rosh Hashanah in September, 1782.
At the close of the war in 1783, many of the refugees from New York returned to their homes and rebuilt the Jewish Community there. Congregation Shearith Israel invited Seixas back to New York to lead the congregation as minister once again. In spite of being established and comfortable in Philadelphia, he agreed, and , and four months after the British evacuated Manhattan, on March 23, 1784, Seixas resumed his duties as minister. He exchanged places with the minister in New York during the latter years of the war, Jacob Raphael Cohen, who came down to Philadelphia to serve as its minister. Each served their respective communities with distinction for the rest of their lives.
In addition to serving his own community, Seixas was very involved in the building of the greater Manhattan community as a whole. He frequently worked closely with the clergy of other faiths in fellowship for the greater good. Seixas was one of fourteen clergy to participate in the inauguration ceremony for George Washington as the first President of the United States. In 1787, he was invited to be a trustee of Columbia College, serving until 1815. He was one of the incorporators when Columbia was officially incorporated and his name appears in their charter. Upon his death, the Trustees, in gratitude, commissioned a memorial medallion with his likeness. He was also a trustee of the Humane Society, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York. He also established a New York bet din for deciding disputes.
Seixas dedicated his life to serving the poor. He began many charitable organizations including the Hebra Hased Va’Amet – the first free burial society, and Kalfe Sedaka Mattan Besether – Fund for Charity and Anonymous Gifts. He frequently preached that the purpose of a fortunate person’s life was to help others, which they should do whether or not they receive a reward. He was profoundly grateful to his native land for providing a place for Jews to live and prosper without the worry of persecution. When preaching to the congregation, he gave “grateful thanks for the many and various blessings that have been graciously bestowed on us.” He established the Thanksgiving Day sermon, delivered first on the day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, proclaimed by President George Washington on November 26, 1789. He gave many more Thanksgiving Day sermons, in one he preached, “I conceive we as Jews are more called upon to return thanks to benign Goodness in placing us in such a country, where we are free to act, according to the dictates of conscience, and where no exception is taken from following the principles of our religion.”
His deep love of America did not dim his fervent desire for the restoration of Zion and the worship in the Temple. He would frequently pray for the people of Israel and would pray that God “restore us to our own land wherein we may dwell in Peace and in happiness according to the words of our sacred Prophets … Let us beseech Him to fulfill his divine promise of restoring us to our land, as declared in the prophesies, and that His sanctuary may again be built where we may perform our daily obligations.”
Rev. Seixas was not the only high-achieving, successful child of Isaac Mendes Seixas and Rachel Levy. His brother Benjamin was a prominent merchant in Newport, Philadelphia and New York, and was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. He was also a member of the board of Mikveh Israel for many years. Benjamin’s son became the minister of Shearith Israel in 1828. Gershom’s brother Abraham served as an officer in the American army and carried dispatches for Gen. Harry Lee in the south. His brother Moses, the eldest, was one of the founders of the Newport Bank of Rhode Island. It was Moses Seixas who drafted a letter, in the name of the Newport congregation to George Washington upon Washington’s visit to Newport. Washington responded with a beautiful letter expressing his appreciation of the good wishes and his strong views in favor of religious tolerance.
The letter, so eloquently written, was delivered by hand to President Washington on his visit to Newport on August 17, 1790. Seixas, writing for his entire congregation writes, “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
From the time the Revolutionary War ended and his return to Shearith Israel until his death in 1816, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas was the sole religious and spiritual leader of the New York Jewish Community. He was deeply loved by his congregation and well-known and loved throughout New York City. In his latter years, he was assisted by his friend and successor Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto, as well as by Emanuel Nunes Carvalho who was the head of the Shearith Israel religious school. In 1811, upon the death of Jacob Raphael Cohen, Carvalho moved to Philadelphia to become the minister at Mikveh Israel. In the first sermon known to have been delivered at Mikveh Israel, Carvalho said of Rev. Seixas, “His aspect was so benign, and his manners so courteous, that those with whom he conversed could not but feel themselves in the presence of a friend, and there was about him such an air of dignity, as always secured to him due respect.”
• Edward Allen Fay, American Annals of the Deaf, Volume LVIII, 1913
• Wolf, Edwin, II, and Maxwell Whiteman. The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. 1957
• Henry Samuel Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia, 1894
• David and Tamar De Sola Pool, An Old Faith in the New World: Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954, 1955
• N. Taylor Phillips, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas: The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution, 1905
• A Religious Discourse: Thanksgiving Day Sermon, November 26, 1789 by the Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1977