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Jewish Journal

Washington’s Letter on Religious Freedom Not So Free

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

November 22, 2011 | 4:23 pm

Washington's 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.

Thanksgiving inevitably brings out a wave of gratitude for the religious freedom Jews enjoy in America, but the whereabouts of one of the earliest symbols of that freedom is now causing some consternation among the Jewish community.

George Washington’s 1790 “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island” is one of the earliest and most significant declarations of religious freedom in the New World.

In it, Washington affirms that “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.”

But that letter has been out of the public eye since 2002.

As Dan Merica reports on CNN’s Belief Blog, the letter resided with the original addressee, Touro Synagogue in Newport, until the early 19th century, when the struggling synagogue shipped most of its artifacts to New York’s Shearith Israel—but the letter was not included.

The letter didn’t resurface until the early 20th century, when philanthropist Morris Morgenstern revealed that he had purchased the letter. Morgenstern and his PR agent, Howard Rubenstein, arranged for showings starting in the 1950s, and lent the letter to B’nai Brith’s Klutznik Museum in Washington D.C., in 1957. But when that museum closed in 2002, the letter went into condition-controlled storage, and so far the Morgenstern Foundation—Morris Morgenstern died in 1969 – has refused to loan it out for public display.

According to CNN, it even denied a request from the Library of Congress. Merica writes:

Since the letter went into storage in 2002, a number of prominent libraries and museums have asked to display it for B’nai B’rith and the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

Among them was the Library of Congress, which asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Jennifer Gavin, director of communications at the Library of Congress, said the letter was requested but not obtained.

[Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history], helped advise the Library of Congress’ celebration of Jewish life. He said the people he worked with were astonished by the rejection.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” Sarna said. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

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