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Washington Wrote Here

May 10, 2012 By:
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Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport will soon be displayed here.

One of the most important documents in American Jewish history hasn't been seen by the public in a decade but will soon be displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
The Philadelphia museum is set, for a limited time, to feature the original, handwritten 1790 letter that President George Washington wrote -- or at least signed -- to the small Jewish community of Newport, R.I.

The tale of how it got from a storage site in suburban Maryland to a new museum on Independence Mall has added a colorful new page to the letter's long history.

For the past year, the Forward Jewish newspaper in New York has mounted a campaign to pressure the letter's owner, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, to allow the public to view the letter, which has been housed in storage.

Composed a year before the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom was adopted, the 300-odd word letter is considered by scholars a major statement by America's first president about the nature of freedom of conscience.

It also represents something very specific to Jews: Proof, that America is different from any other country Jews have ever lived in -- providing security, opportunity and, ultimately, equality.

Jonathan Sarna, chief historian of the museum, said he was overjoyed the letter would be exhibited. "The vast majority of American Jews have never seen this letter in the original. It's a bit like having the opportunity to see the Declaration of Independence."

"It's not just toleration that is spoken of. It's a remarkable statement of religious equality, it really applies to all religious minorities in the United States," Sarna said of the letter.

In August of 1790, Washington visited Newport as part of a tour of Rhode Island in appreciation of the state's vote to ratify the Constitution. Washington visited Newport's lone synagogue, Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel. It's not clear whether he read the letter aloud or composed it after his visit.

The text, addressed to synagogue president Moses Seixas and reprinted at the time in many newspapers, included the statement that the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

"May the Children of the Stock of Abraham," the letter continued, "who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."

The document remained in the hands of the congregation until the 1950s, when it was purchased by Morris Morgenstern, a New York financier and philanthropist who died in 1969.

For years, the letter was on loan to B'nai Brith International and displayed at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Since that building was sold in 2002, the letter has been kept in storage at a suburban Maryland facility.

Reportedly, the foundation has repeatedly denied requests from different institutions, including the National Museum of American Jewish History, to exhibit the letter.

A year ago, the Forward began running a series of stories about the letter, spurred on by the fact that Sarna and other scholars said they didn't know what had become of it.

About six months ago, Richard Morgenstern, Morris' grandson, answered the museum. Over a period of about six months, the parties negotiated the terms for the museum to borrow and display the document, according to Ivy Barsky, the museum director who will also become its CEO this summer. The talks focused on everything from limiting its exposure to light to security and transportation.

"It was clear he wanted to hear all kinds of assurances and in great detail, hear how we would be taking care of the object," Barsky said, referring to Morgenstern, who was not available for comment.

"When you have an incredible, authentic object like this that tells a story, it just has an incredible power."

The resulting exhibit, "To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom," which will be open to the public from June to September, is coming together extremely quickly, according to Barsky.

The show includes an original letter from Washington to Congregation Mikveh Israel -- also on loan from the local synagogue -- and a host of other historic items, including correspondence between Washington and the Jews of Savannah and an early printing of the Declaration of Independence.

Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, called it a victory for old-fashioned investigative journalism and said the pressure exerted by the paper undoubtedly played a role in Morgenstern's agreeing to temporarily hand over the letter to the museum. Echoing Barsky, Eisner said the paper was drawn to the story by the sheer power of original documents in a digital age.

"We all know what the letter said, it is seeing the real thing that has the ultimate power," said Eisner, a Philadelphian. "As Jews especially, we practice that. We read from a Torah every Shabbat, from the scroll itself, not from a book."

The letter is also a big deal at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, the name by which the original synagogue later became known. The living congregation and historic center is the site of a yearly reading of the letter (a copy) and devotes much of its space to explaining its importance.

If Bea Ross, president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel -- the Orthodox congregation descended from the original shul -- was disappointed the letter will shown in Philly and not Rhode Island, it didn't come across.

"This is wonderful and people should be able to read it. It really stands for everything that we value," said Ross, who quoted from the letter from memory. "This really is talking about separation of church and state."

David Kleiman, a historian who serves as the curator for the visitor center at Touro -- which has also been seeking permission to show the original -- called the Philadelphia exhibit a great step forward.

Ultimately, he thinks the document should be housed at a secular institution because, he said, it is a seminal document in American history.

"The message of the letter is what's important," he said. "I understand the Morgenstern desire for it to be at a Jewish museum. I love the museum in Philadelphia.

But, he added, "I still think that this letter belongs at the National Archives."

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