Members of Shearith Israel left their mark on history, both in terms of their contributions to the congregataion and in terms of their contributions to the civic life of New York and America.
Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816) was the first American-born spiritual leader of Shearith Israel, having been raised and educated in our community. He began service as Hazan in 1768, and quickly showed himself to be an adept synagogue functionary, beloved by the Congregation. When British troops took control of New York City in 1776, Rev. Seixas and many congregants fled New York rather than live under British rule. He became Hazan at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia through the war years. In 1784, he returned to New York to continue his service to Shearith Israel as Hazan, mohel, and communal leader. Aside from his many responsibilities as the religious head of New York’s Jewish community, he was active in a wide range of civic organizations. He was a Trustee of the Humane Society; a member of the Board of Regents of the University of New York; and a regent and Trustee of Columbia College. In 1943, the Jewish Studies Society of Columbia University became known as the Seixas Society.
Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862) was one of the most impressive and colorful American military leaders during the 19th century, and was a member of Shearith Israel. He served in the War of 1812 as master of the brig, Argus. After destroying twenty-one English ships, he was captured and imprisoned for sixteen months in England. Upon his release, he returned to America where he continued to serve in the U.S. Navy, rising to the highest rank of Commodore. Although he was subjected to anti-Jewish prejudice throughout the course of his illustrious career, he persisted in his efforts to free the American military from religious discrimination. He is credited with having convinced the navy to abolish its cruel policy of punishing sailors by flogging in 1850.
While commanding a naval vessel in the eastern Mediterranean he procured a wagon load of soil from the Holy Land. It’s use ceremonial at Shearith Israel burials as a symbolic identification with the Promised Land. Uriah P. Levy is buried in the Cypress Hills cemetery of Shearith Israel. His tombstone reads that he was the father of the law for abolishing corporal punishment in the navy.
A great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Commodore Levy purchased Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello, in 1836. He and members of the Levy family lovingly preserved it as an American historic treasure until 1923, when the property was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.
A destroyer-escort, built for the United States Navy in World War II, was named after him. The Jewish chapel at the United States Naval Academy is named in honor of Commodore Levy.
Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1939) had a distinguished legal career. He was a successful attorney, highly versed in all aspects of the law. In 1913, he was elected to the New York Supreme Court, and two months later he was appointed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. He served on the Court of Appeals for twenty years, rising to the position of Chief Judge. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover nominated Cardozo to the United States Supreme Court, a position he held with great distinction. His deep learning, compassion, eloquence, and graceful writing style made him one of the most respected figures in American legal tradition.
In 1895, Cardozo participated in an important meeting of the Elector’s of Congregation Shearith Israel. He spoke impressively on the need for the congregation to maintain its historic traditions and to remain true to the customs and practices of the generations that had come before. His speech served to quell the calls for reform and to solidify the congregation’s commitment to its ancient traditions.
Maud Nathan (1862-1946) was founder and first President of the Sisterhood of Shearith Israel, established in 1896. She was a social activist and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as head of the women’s suffrage committee in his National Progressive Party. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she took great pride in her American roots and in the role American Jews have played in the life of the United States. From 1897 to 1917, she served as President of the Consumer’s League of New York which successfully strove to improve working conditions for clerks in the shops and department stores of the city. She devoted her life to advocating for the ideals of freedom, mutual respect and social justice.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is best known for her famous poem, “The New Colossus,” written in 1883, and inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. This poem includes the moving lines which capture the spirit and dream of America:
“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
She was a poet of note during her lifetime, and also wrote important essays in which she expressed her strong aspirations for a national revival of the Jewish people. She was an active participant in work on behalf of Jewish immigrants who were fleeing the oppressions of the Old World, and who were arriving in New York in very large numbers