by Seymour "Sy" Brody
Gershom Mendes Seixas was the first native-born rabbi in the United States. He was one of seven children of Rachel and Isaac Seixas. He was born in New York City on January 15, 1746. His father had emigrated from Lisbon, Portugal, to New York in 1730, where he went into the mercantile business.
Gershom Seixas studied with Rabbi Joseph Pinto. He was appointed to be the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, in 1768. Seixas was the father of fifteen children from his first wife, Elkay Cohen, who died in 1785, and eleven by his second wife Hannah Manuel, whom he married on November 1, 1789.
Seixas also served the religious needs of other Jews in the outlying areas of New York. He was the teacher of Hebrew, literature and law for the community.
He and most of his congregation left New York City in 1776, when the British were approaching during the American Revolutionary War. He went to Stamford, Connecticut, while most of the congregation went to Philadelphia. Four years later, he joined the others in Philadelphia where he helped found a new synagogue, Mikveh Israel. He was its rabbi for two years.
Seixas retumed to New York to serve the Jewish community in 1784. He was the leader in helping to save the Jewish cemetery in Chatham Square from obliteration. He helped establish the Kalfe Sedeka Matten Besether, in 1788, and the Hebra Hased Va-Amer, in 1792. Both were charitable organizations.
He was the first rabbi in America to give his sermons in English. He gave sermons which dealt with Jewish participation in the life of the state and made appeals for support of the American Revolution and against the British-Indian raids in the Northwest Territory. When the council members of Philadelphia made eligibility for an assembly seat dependent on professing the divine origin of the New Testament, he and other Jews fought against this unconstitutional religious test.
Seixas was in communication with the Jews in Europe and in other parts of America. He frequently consulted with the Beth Din (Court of Judgement) of the London synagogue on religious problems. He helped raise funds to build synagogues in other American cities. He served as trustee of Columbia College and often exchanged pulpits with other New York Clergymen.
Seixas' brothers were also active in the life and development of the United States. Abraham Mendes was an officer in the Revolutionary Army who fought the British in the southem states. Benjamin was a founder of the New York Stock Exchange. Moses Mendes was one of the organizers and the first cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island. He was also the president of the Newport Jewish Congregation.
David Seixas, a son, established the Deaf and Dumb Institute of Philadelphia. He was one of the first to discover ways of burning anthracite coal. He also helped to introduce daguerreotypes (a photograph made by an early process on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate and developed by mercury vapor) in the United States.
Gershom Seixas died on July 2, 1816. He is buried in New York City's New Bowery Cemetery of the Shearith Israel Congregation.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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