Two Incredible Jewish Pioneers
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.
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.
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