Tag Archives: English Jews

Jews of the Week: Mendes Seixas Family

Gershom Mendes Seixas

Antonio Abraham Mendes Seixas (d. 1738) was born in a small village in Portugal to a family of Conversos (or Marranos), Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity but continued to practice their ancestral faith in secret. The Seixas family was made up of physicians, lawyers, and merchants, and were among the most successful in Portugal. Despite this, they were still hounded by the Inquisition, and many were imprisoned or put to death. Abraham Mendes Seixas himself barely escaped the Inquisition, and settled in London with his wife and three kids around 1725. There, the family openly returned to Judaism, and Seixas renewed his marriage vows under a proper chupah in a public ceremony. Seixas quickly rebuilt his wealth and became a prominent member of London’s growing Sephardic community. When he passed away in 1738 he left very little for his only son, Isaac Mendes Seixas (b. 1709) apparently believing he was unfit to run the business. Isaac set forth for a new start in America. The son proved a good businessman, and quickly rose to the highest ranks of the merchant class in the New World. He married Rachel Levy, daughter of the great (former Jew of the WeekMoses Levy, and became an important member of Shearith Israel, one of America’s first synagogues.

Isaac’s son, Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816) was the hazzan of that synagogue, and although not ordained for the role, served as its rabbi. Some say he may have been the first rabbi born in America, while others point out he was the first rabbi to give sermons in English. He was also the first Jew to sit on the board of an American university (Columbia). His good friend of twenty years, and fellow on Columbia’s board, was Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It is quite likely that Gershom helped Hamilton in drafting and promoting some of the famous Federalist Papers. Meanwhile, Gershom’s older brother Moses Mendes Seixas (1744-1809) moved to Newport and became one of its richest businessmen. He co-founded the Bank of Rhode Island, and served as president of Touro Synagogue, America’s first (and also to whom George Washington wrote one of his most well-known letters). Meanwhile, younger brother Benjamin Mendes Seixas (1748-1817) was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange, and youngest brother Abraham Mendes Seixas (1751-1799) was a decorated officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The entire family was known for their tremendous patriotism and philanthropy.

Did You Know These People Are Jewish, Too?

Words of the Week

For happily the Government of 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, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
– George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue and the Jewish community of Newport.

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Shlomo & Shlomo Moussaieff

Shlomo ben Yakov Moussaieff (1852-1922) was born in the emirate of Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan). Both a renowned rabbi and a wealthy businessman, he made aliyah to the Holy Land in 1888 – bringing with him forty cases of gold – and was one of the founders of Jerusalem’s famous Bukharian Quarter. Moussaieff built four synagogues, and homes for 25 poor families. Meanwhile, he published a prayer book and disseminated it widely, making it his mission to inspire more Jews to pray regularly. He also continued his business ventures, particularly in real estate, tea, silk, and gemstones. Moussaieff was an avid collector of rare manuscripts, and amassed an impressive library with 225 ancient texts, including prized manuscripts of Maimonides and the mystical teachings of the Arizal. Until his last days, Moussaieff was committed to the development of Israel, and stated in his will that only those of his seven children that remain in Israel would receive any inheritance.

His grandson, also Shlomo Moussaieff (1923-2015), though better known as Sam, would become even more famous. One of twelve children raised in Jerusalem, Sam Moussaieff ran away from home as a teen to avoid his strict father. Living in a synagogue, he worked for a carpenter and sold ancient coins he would find in Jerusalem’s caves and tombs. Once arrested by Arab policemen, he ended up in a Muslim school for nearly a year, becoming proficient in Arabic and the Koran. At 17, Moussaieff enlisted in the British Army to fight the Nazis. After World War II, he fought for Israel’s independence and was captured by the Jordanians, who imprisoned him for a year. Moussaieff returned to Jerusalem and joined the family jewellery business. He soon opened his own antiquities shop in Jaffa, at times getting in trouble for smuggling goods. In 1963, Moussaieff was offered to have his record cleared of legal issues, as well as the rights to an exclusive shop in London’s Hilton Hotel, in exchange for handwritten letters from Maimonides which he owned. Moussaieff accepted and moved to London. His shop soon specialized in jewellery, and he became the dealer of choice for wealthy barons from Arab oil states thanks to his pristine Arabic. Moussaieff became world-renowned for his extremely rare and special gems. He owned the most precious stone in the world: a red diamond valued at $20 million. In 2011, he was ranked among the richest Londoners, with an estimated worth of some $350 million. Moussaieff amassed a personal collection of over 60,000 ancient artifacts, including millennia-old seals from Jerusalem’s First Temple, and reportedly even items associated with the forefather Abraham! His stated goal was to collect indisputable evidence proving the accuracy of the Torah. Moussaieff was given an honourary degree by Bar Ilan University (to whom he donated many artifacts, including his grandfather’s ancient manuscripts) which established the Dr. Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbala Research. Interestingly, Moussaieff once purchased an ancient Torah scroll for $1 million from the Allenby family – who had the Torah because the elder Shlomo Moussaieff gave it as a gift to General Allenby during World War I!

Words of the Week

My spirit moved me to leave the land of my birth, in which I grew up, and to ascend to the Holy Land, the land in which our ancestors dwelled in happiness, the land whose memory passes before us ten times each day in our prayers…
Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, in the introduction to his prayer book, Hukat Olam

Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.