Tag Archives: German Jews

Jew of the Week: Jonas Phillips

Revolutionary War Hero

phillipsJonas Phillips (1736-1803) was born in Germany to an observant, Yiddish-speaking family. When he was 21, Jonah set forth for the New World. He first made his way to London, anglicizing his father’s name “Phaibush” to “Phillips”. There, he sold himself into indentured servitude in order to pay for his passage to America. After working several years on an indigo plantation, Phillips earned his freedom and moved to New York to work as a merchant. He became a wealthy man and married a prominent Sephardic Jewish woman, with whom he would have 21 children. Unfortunately, Phillips lost much of his wealth because of British restrictions on commerce. Not surprisingly, Phillips became a strong supporter of the American Revolutionary War, and joined the Philadelphia Militia. He fought valiantly, and earned a reputation as an American war hero. In 1787, he took part in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution. He played a key role in ensuring that the Constitution would protect people’s religious freedoms, and give equal civil rights to all citizens. Meanwhile, Phillips was a founding father of one of America’s oldest synagogues, Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. One of his grandsons became the Chief Justice of South Carolina’s Supreme Court, while another was America’s first Jewish commodore in the US Navy, and also a famous war hero. His great-grandson was a governor of South Carolina.

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Words of the Week

Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the North, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs.
— Hamas Minister Fathi Hammad on Al-Hekma TV (Egypt), March 23, 2012 (Click here to watch)

Jews of the Week: Isaac Leeser and Warder Cresson

Two Incredible Jewish Pioneers

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was born in the Germanic kingdom of Westphalia. Growing up, he received both a religious Jewish education, as well as a secular German one, and was fluent in Latin, German, and Hebrew. He immigrated to the United States at the young age of 17 and lived with his wealthy uncle. While working in his uncle’s business, Leeser started to teach Judaism in his local synagogue, and vocally defended his religion when it was under attack in the public sphere. By age 22, he was quite well known, and was invited to take over Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of America’s oldest Sephardic synagogues. Leeser introduced American Jewry to the German custom of delivering a sermon between prayers (something now common in all synagogues). He wrote a book about Judaism in 1829 but found no publisher willing to print it. So, he started his own press, establishing the Jewish Publication Society. In 1845, he published his English translation of the Torah – the first by a Jew. Eight years later, he published a complete English Tanakh. This translation was the authoritative Jewish version for decades, and is still widely used today. Leeser helped found some of America’s first Jewish schools, seminaries, and magazines. He was also a civil rights activist and worked hard on behalf of all minorities. He is regarded as one of America’s most important Jewish pioneers.

Michael Boaz Israel, aka. Warder Cresson

Michael Boaz Israel, aka. Warder Cresson

In 1840, Leeser met a wealthy farmer named Warder Cresson (1798-1860). Cresson was a very religious Quaker, a preacher and writer. After some discussions with Leeser, Cresson took a deep interest in Judaism. In 1844, he was appointed America’s first consul in Jerusalem. This brought him face-to-face with Judaism and he grew close to Jerusalem’s ancient Sephardic community. He started writing for Leeser’s magazine, The Occident, and even began doing counter-missionary work to stop Christian proselytizing of Jews. In 1848, Cresson converted to Judaism, was circumcised, and took on the Hebrew name Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham. Upon his return to Philadelphia, his wife divorced him, sued him, and sought to have him declared insane. The case made headlines across the US. Cresson ultimately won the suit, proving his absolute sanity and wisdom. He returned to Jerusalem, married a Sephardic woman and had three kids. In 1852, he established a Jewish agricultural colony – predating the Zionist movement by several decades, and in fact, helping to inspire it. He continued writing on Jewish topics, and died as a respected and prominent leader in Israel’s Sephardic community. His original tomb and burial place on the Mount of Olives was recently rediscovered.

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Words of the Week

Just as the olive yields oil for light only when it is pounded, so are man’s greatest potentials realized only under the pressure of adversity.
– The Talmud