Tag Archives: Rabbi

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.

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz

Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz

Ze’ev Wolf Yavetz (1847-1924) was born in what is now Kolno, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family. A noted scholar from a young age, he became a distinguished historian, linguist, writer, and teacher. When he was 40, Rabbi Yavetz made aliyah to the Holy Land with his family and joined the Yehud moshava, where he worked in a vineyard. Shortly after, he was hired by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to head the new Rothschild-funded school in Zikhron Ya’akov. (Zikhron Ya’akov was one of the first modern Jewish settlements in Israel, founded by Edmond de Rothschild in 1882, and named after his father Ya’akov “James” Rothschild.) In 1890, when the holiday of Tu b’Shevat came around, Rabbi Yavetz wanted to do something meaningful with his students in honour of the Jewish “new year for trees”. So, he took his class on a tree-planting trip. This turned into a yearly tradition, and was soon adopted by neighbouring schools and villages. Eventually, the Jewish National Fund adopted the custom, too, and to this day over a million Jews participate in the JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive each year. In all, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in Israel, making it the only country in the world to have increased its tree population in the last century. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yavetz joined the Hebrew Language Committee (famously founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and helped to develop the modern Hebrew tongue. He coined a number of modern Hebrew words, including tarbut and kvish. Unlike other Zionists, Rabbi Yavetz never abandoned his faith, and worked hard to ensure Jews in Israel observe Torah law, and live like their ancestors. For this reason, he was a co-founder of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement. (The more well-known Bnei Akiva organization is the youth arm of Mizrachi.) Mizrachi would go on to establish Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, ensure that Israeli government kitchens keep kashrut, and that public services rest on Shabbat. Mizrachi also had a political party, which had many names over the years, and is now known as HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”). Rabbi Yavetz spent the last years of his life in London, where he wrote a monumental 14-volume history of the Jewish people called Toldot Israel. Today, a school in Zikhron Ya’akov is named after him, as is the village of Kfar Yavetz.

Happy Tu b’Shevat!

Tu b’Shevat: The Prime Ministers of Israel and the Coming of Mashiach

Words of the Week

… from the most inhospitable soil, surrounded on every side by barrenness and the most miserable form of cultivation, I was driven into a fertile and thriving country estate where the scanty soil gave place to good crops and cultivation, and then vineyards and finally to the most beautiful, luxurious orange groves, all created in 20 or 30 years by the exertions of the Jewish community who live there.
– Winston Churchillreporting to Parliament after visiting Rishon LeZion in 1921