I received several emails from readers who pointed out several errors in the story I posted about President Washington and a lone Jewish soldier at Valley Forge. The emails pointed out that there was more than one Jewish soldier at Valley Forge and that Washington was only elected president in 1789 and that it was not accurate for me to have referred to him as president when this story occurred. It was also pointed out that Brooke Street was only so named in 1804.

I apologize for the inaccuracies in the story as I presented it and have since found other online sites that call out this Valley Forge story as fiction. In fact, one site coined the creative name, valley forgery. In its place, I would like to offer another story, this one backed up by historians and the original letters to which this story refers.

I share this not so much as a Chanukah story but to highlight the fine and decent man that General and later President George Washington was. As one of my readers wrote, “Washington, who was a very decent and tolerant man, does not need fiction to improve his legacy.”

The event I want to share occurred in August of 1790. Several months after the ratification of the Constitution, President Washington, accompanied by Thomas Jefferson and others, visited the State of Rhode Island, the last state to ratify the constitution. The Hebrew congregation of Newport Rhode Island, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, sent a letter of greeting to President Washington, penned by Moses Sexias, who signed as Warden of the congregation.

In his letter, Sexias invokes G-d’s blessing on the newly established country that extends freedom of conscience and immunity of citizenship to all its citizens regardless of nation, tongue or language. He extolls the government for giving to bigoty no sanction and to persecution no assistance. He also reflects on darker days when the Jewish people were denied their invaluable rights and expresses gratitude to the Almighty for this positive change of events.

Historians understood this to be a veiled plea to the President that Jews be included in the promise of  the new government to extend liberties to all its citizens in contrast to the Jewish experience in many other countries where liberties promised to all often excluded the Jews.

In his letter of response, Washington embraced Sexias’ language, especially the phrase that has become the most frequently quoted passage from the letter that the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. Washington corrected Sexias on a fundamental point. He explained that Liberties of conscience and immunities of citizenship does not belong to the government to be extended or denied by will. It is an inherent natural right that cannot be extended nor withheld by the indulgence of one class over another.

With this, Washington affirmed his government’s ideology and policy.  Freedom does not belong to the government and thus cannot be denied by the government to any particular class. Freedom is a G-d given right, and the government, in its role as the nation’s steward, defends and protects this freedom on behalf of all citizens.

He concludes with the wish “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

Indeed, as my reader emailed to me, Washington does not require fiction to improve his legacy.

Happy Chanukah

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