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This week we remember the Hashcabah of Manuel Josephson, one of the original members of Congregation Mikveh Israel at the time of the construction of the first synagogue building in 1782. Josephson was born in 1729 in Germany, and died on January 30, 1796 (20 Shebat 5556). Josephson married Rachel (Ritzel) Judah, daughter of Baruch and Sarah Helbert Judah in New York City on Lag Lahomer, 15 May 1759.
When he first came to the America, Josephson became a merchant, supplying the armies in the French and Indian War in 1757. He settled in New York and joined Congregation Shearith Israel. Josephson soon became a prominent member of the congregation. Shalom Goldman notes that Josephson “owned the best library of rabbinic texts in colonial times and was well versed in rabbinic Hebrew”. He served as one of the judges on the Shearith Israel bet din (rabbinic court). On many occasions, Josephson articulated religious questions addressed to rabbinic authorities in England and Holland. Occasionally, he also rendered his own halachic decisions. In 1762, Josephson was elected as Parnas of Shearith Israel.
The 1760s and 1770s were times of great contention in Shearith Israel. There were numerous fights and disputes between members and between members and the leadership of the congregation. Much of this has come down to us through history because the synagogue started keeping secret minutes to record the worst of the issues. Some examples include Isaac Pinto, who in 1767 was fined for “abusing” the Parnas. A Shamash was suspended for insubordination. In 1771, a general meeting of the congregation had to be called because the Parnas-elect, Moses Gomez refused to assume his position. Largely, the infighting and questioning of the governing body of the congregation was a reflection of what was going on in the streets of New York and the other major cities in the colonies as the people rejected the authority of the British monarchy.
As the issues escalated, two of the disputes ended up in public civil trials. One of them involved Manuel Josephson, who in 1770 publicly criticized 84 year-old Joseph Simson, who was the father of Josephson’s merchant colleagues Solomon and Sampson Simson. As Howard Rock describes the scene, Josephson berated Simson “because the elder Simson’s prayer shawl was unkempt and because of his flawed speech and unseemly gestures.” The insults flew back and forth with the younger Simson calling into question Josephson’s business practices and his humble origins and scolding him for picking on an old man. In the end, the court found for the synagogue and against Josephson. Incidents, disputes, name-calling, and fights continued this way in the congregation until 1776, when the British occupied Manhattan and the congregation decided to close the synagogue and disperse. Most of the members either joined the military on the side of the colonists or dispersed northward to Newport or south to Philadelphia and Congregation Mikveh Israel. Manuel Josephson was part of the latter group, which also included the Hazan, Gershom Mendes Seixas.
Josephson arrived in Philadelphia as part of the New York contingent and set up shop as a merchant with a store at 144 High Street, later in about 1800 called Market Street. Aside from quickly becoming one of the leaders of Mikveh Israel, he was also held in very high esteem in the general community by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Josephson was a very traditional and observant Jew. In 1784 he petitioned the board of Mikveh Israel asking that a ritual bathhouse (mikvah) be built for the women of the congregation, in order that they observe Jewish law. Accordingly, the mikvah was built in 1786, while Josephson was Parnas of the congregation, and the board placed it under his supervision. Josephson was elected as Parnas in 1785, and served through 1791. His most famous accomplishment, however, came in 1790.
Shortly after the US Constitution was ratified in 1789, George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States. Moses Seixas, the brother of Gershom Mendes Seixas who was the minister of Shearith Israel at the time and was the minister of Mikveh Israel during the war, wrote a beautiful letter to the new President, filled with warmth and eloquence. He famously noted that the new Government of the United States of America gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, and considers all of its citizens of all religions equal under the law. Washington’s famous reply repeated the eloquent words of Seixas and affirmed the equality of the Jews, and declared that America was different from other nations of the world because “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship”.
This was to be the second of three letters that Washington wrote to different Jewish communities during that year, mainly because of discrimination and infighting among the Jews. Shortly after the inauguration in April 1789, the presidents of the six congregations in the US – New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, Richmond, and Savanna – agreed to send a joint letter. Then they spent the next year and a half arguing over who would sign it! The original plan called for the letter to be sent from Shearith Israel in New York, as this was originally the capital of the fledgling country. But there were months of delays and meanwhile, Congress moved the capital to Philadelphia in January of 1790.
Then Manuel Josephson, Parnas of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, offered to write the letter on behalf of the other congregations. However, the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardic elite who dominated the other congregations objected to the Ashkenazic Josephson, of humble Eastern European origins, considering him unworthy to speak for them. A few months passed in which nothing was done, so finally in May, the Savanna congregation, noting and apologizing for the delay in writing, presented a letter to Washington. Washington was gracious in his eloquent reply. In August, Moses Seixas and the Jews of Newport also tired of waiting and presented their own letter, certainly the most famous of the three, along with its often-studied reply.
Finally, in December 1790, Josephson, in a short meeting with Washington, presented a letter from the four remaining congregations from Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond. Josephson apologized for the delay in adding their congratulations to those of the rest of the nation. Washington’s reply was shorter than the other two, but was nonetheless warm and appreciative, stating that “The affection of such a people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation” and conveyed how much pleasure he received from the support and approval of his fellow-citizens. He thanked the Almighty for intervening on behalf of the Americans in the “late glorious revolution”, and promised to work just as hard for the country in times of peace as he did during the war. He closed by saying, “May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your congregations”.
Manuel Josephson died on 30 January 1796 and is buried in the Mikveh Israel Spruce St. cemetery. His wife, Rachel died on the same Hebrew date, 20 Shebat, a year later and his buried beside him.
- Howard Rock, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865, 2012
- Shalom Goldman, God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imagination, 2004
- Jacob Rader Marcus, The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, 1981
- Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America, 2009
- Wolf, Edwin, II, and Maxwell Whiteman. The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. (1957)
- American Jewish Historical Society Quarterly, Volume 11. Cyrus Adler, President, 1903
- Henry Samuel Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia, 1894
- Jonathan Jeremy Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, 1996