While the celebration of Thanksgiving is not traditionally a Jewish custom nor is it canonized in Jewish law, it does appears that one Manhattan synagogue has a deeply historical connection to the holiday that always falls out on the last Thursday in November.
According to a report in the New York Post, Congregation Shearith Israel which happens to be America’s first Jewish congregation and located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side makes it their business to observe Thanksgiving each and every year.
The Post reported that on Thanksgiving day, “the synagogue will feature a special holiday-themed liturgy, followed by an address by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and readings from a Torah adorned with Liberty Bells. An English prayer wishing good health and fortune on the president, vice president, governor, and other elected officials has been recited for two centuries. There’s no turkey at the morning gathering, but ample hot chocolate for parade watchers.”
The historical connection between the patriotic synagogue and the observation of Thanksgiving has a lot to do with the fact that, according to the Post, previous synagogue leaders fought with George Washington and have been celebrating Thanksgiving since it was proclaimed a national holiday in 1789.
The founding members of the synagogue were Sephardic Jews who had fled the inquisition in Portuguese-ruled Brazil and in 1654 arrived in Manhattan and founded the synagogue. Today, the synagogue is located at 2 West 70th Street.
The synagogue’s first Chazzan ( cantor) and first American born leader was Gershom Menes Seixas. Moreover, Seixas was a devoted patriot of the American Revolution, according to the Post report. The Post reported that when the Brits conquered Manhattan in 1776, Seixas had no choice but to leave the synagogue which was then located at 26 South William Street and to flee to Connecticut. The synagogue was ransacked and the remnants of the Torah scrolls are in the archives of the synagogue for posterity.
Other synagogue members were also participants in the American revolution. The Post report indicated that some congregants served in the Continental Army and approximately 20 American Revolution veterans from the synagogue are interred in the Chatham Square Cemetery in Chinatown, which was once the burial ground attached to the synagogue.
Towards the culmination of the revolution and at the time that the 13 colonies declared their victory against the British, the Post reported that Seixas returned to New York and was among a few selected clergymen invited to participate in George Washington’s inaugural celebration.
Speaking to the Post, Barbara Reiss, executive director of the synagogue said, “We were around when it was a Dutch colony, and the establishment of the United States of America, and the very first Thanksgiving. We felt it was important enough to incorporate that into our service and our prayers from the get go as a day of thanks as American Jews.”
Also speaking to the Post was Zachariah Edinger, the congregation’s sexton and a fifth-generation member. He said, “When in 1789 George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving [Seixas] was all on board.”
The synagogue has made it a tradition along with other houses of worship to deliver food packages to those in need every Thanksgiving.
The Post reported that Edinger said: “Thanksgiving means something to this congregation and being American means something to this congregation. We don’t give it lip service. We really feel it.”