Two hundred and forty years may have elapsed since America declared its independence from Great Britain, but the passage of time has in no way diminished the critical role played by colonial Jews in the struggle for liberty. And at a time of rising anti-Semitism, including in the US, it is well worth taking a moment to consider the outsized contribution that Jews made to the success of the American revolutionary cause.
Though they numbered barely 2,500 souls, or less than one-tenth of one percent of the population of the 13 colonies, American Jews’ “influence loomed far larger,” in the words of Brandeis University’s renowned historian Professor Jonathan D. Sarna, highlighting their prominence in fields such as trade and commerce.
After the outbreak of hostilities, a small number of Jews chose to remain loyal to King George III of England, but the overwhelming majority sided with the cause of freedom and the American patriots. As Sarna notes, “They contributed what they could to the national struggle, shed blood on the field of battle and, after the victory, joined their countrymen in jubilant celebration.”
Many have heard of the exploits of men such as Haym Salomon, a Polish-born New York Jew who is widely considered to have been one of the leading financiers of General George Washington’s Continental Army. A member of the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty, which struggled against the king’s rule, Salomon was arrested twice for his revolutionary activity, which ranged from assisting American prisoners to escape British captivity to raising funds and lending large sums to help sustain the war effort.
In late summer of 1781, when Washington’s forces had trapped British General Charles Cornwallis and his army in Yorktown, Virginia, the Continental Congress’ coffers stood empty, imperiling the opportunity to bring the war to a close. After Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris told Washington that no funds were available, the latter issued a clear-cut instruction: “Send for Haym Salomon.”
Salomon raised the requisite capital, which enabled the Americans to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown in what would prove to be the penultimate battle of the war.
Other Jews, such as Mordechai Sheftall, who was appointed to serve as Deputy Commissary General for the Continental Army, or Francis Salvador, the first Jew elected to a state colonial assembly and the first to die on the battlefield, have also attained legendary status.
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But there are numerous unsung Jewish heroes of the American Revolution, men and women who have not received the attention or accolades that they deserve.
Take, for example, 19-year old Reuben Etting of Baltimore, Maryland. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, ignited the armed conflict, Etting enlisted on the American side. He was captured by the British and when they discovered that he was Jewish, they gave him only pork to eat. As a Jew, Etting adamantly refused to do so, and instead subsisted on scraps of food given to him by other prisoners.
Weakened by abuse and maltreatment, he died shortly after being released.
If that isn’t heroism, what is? And then there is the bravery displayed by Esther Hays of Bedford, New York, a young Jewish mother whose husband David was away serving with the American forces when the British and their loyalist allies captured her town. Lying in bed with her newborn infant at her side, Hays was confronted by the enemy, who demanded that she reveal information about a group of patriots that were making their way to an American camp nearby. Hays resolutely refused to divulge what she knew, even when British loyalists set fire to her home and burned it to the ground. Fortunately, Esther and her child succeeded in escaping into the nearby woods with the help of servants, and managed to survive.
Another little-known story is that of Captain Richard Lushington’s unit of American volunteers which came to be known as the “Jew Company” because so many of its members were Jews who hailed from King Street in Charleston, South Carolina. It was, according to historian Professor Samuel Rezneck, “the only instance of a group mobilization of Jews in one city and into one company” during the Revolution, and the unit included a cantor, a rabbi’s brother and a man who would later found a synagogue.
The “Jew Company” fought bravely at the Battle of Beaufort in South Carolina on February 3, 1779, inflicting heavy casualties on the British. At least one Jew in the unit was killed and another wounded during the clash.
Subsequently, in the fall of 1779, the “Jew Company” took part in the failed attempt led by General Benjamin Lincoln to retake Savannah, Georgia, from the British, as well as the unsuccessful effort to defend Charleston in early 1780.
Does all of this really matter? I believe it most certainly does.
The record shows that from the very start, Jews made lasting and important contributions to the birth, growth and development of the nascent republic that came to be known as the United States of America. And they did so in a manner far out of proportion to their numbers.
In 1939, my late grandmother, Dr. Miriam Freund- Rosenthal, who later served as national president of Hadassah, published her doctoral dissertation in the form of a book entitled, Jewish Merchants in Colonial America.
In the foreword, she wrote that, “the America of today rests on the solid foundations of the colonial period,” and argued that “it is possible and important to show by actual research and record that the Jews have been an integral part of the United States since its very beginnings.”
Indeed, Jews helped to make America’s freedom a reality.
That is something that should serve as a source of pride to us all as well as a powerful reminder, and rejoinder, to those who would dare to suggest otherwise.
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