Private Owner of Washington's Letter

Richard Morgenstern Keeps Historic Jewish Document Hidden

gilbert stuart

By Paul Berger

Published December 27, 2011, issue of December 30, 2011.
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Richard Morgenstern just wants to be left alone.

But when you are the multimillionaire owner of one of the most important documents in American Jewish history — George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I. — avoiding the limelight is not easy. Especially when that document disappeared from public view 10 years ago and you are the only man in the world with the power to bring it back.

In a series of articles and opinion columns this year, the Forward has highlighted the importance of the letter not just to the American Jewish community, but also to the American nation. “It’s the most eloquent statement, perhaps in our history, of religious tolerance,” Washington biographer Ron Chernow told this paper.

In recent years, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Library of Congress, among others, have tried to persuade Morgenstern to return the letter to public display so that Americans can see the original document in which their first president lauded his government, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

The Forward believes that the Library of Congress is still negotiating with Morgenstern over the letter, a suspicion that only intensified when the Forward requested clarification from the library.

“As a matter of policy, the Library of Congress does not discuss negotiations we may or may not be having regarding acquisitions,” Audrey Fischer, a Library of Congress spokeswoman, said in a November 30 email. “These matters are confidential until such time as all parties agree to publicly announce a gift, donation or purchase.”

She added, “Hope this clarifies the matter,” as if to underline the fact that it did not.

Morgenstern, meanwhile, continues to maintain as low a profile as possible. Reached by phone at one of his homes, in Boca Raton, Fla., Morgenstern said he did not wish to comment.

Very little has been written about Richard Morgenstern. But how can a man who controls the fate of such an important document, and whose family foundation, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, donates about $500,000 each year to mostly Jewish causes, remain such an enigma?

Here’s what we know about him:

Richard Morgenstern owns a 12,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom home in the leafy Beverly Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles. He is a real estate investor and a congregant at Temple Sinai on Wilshire Boulevard. (The Morris Morgenstern Foundation donated $35,000 to the synagogue in 2007.)

A few years ago, Morgenstern bought a 5,000-square-foot condominium at the palatial Boca Raton Resort & Club. The resort, which is owned and operated by Waldorf Astoria, boasts elegant public spaces, a marina, a golf course, a croquet lawn and a private beach.

Officially, since Morris Morgenstern died, in 1969, his namesake foundation has been run by his son, Frank. But in practice, those who have had dealings with the Morgenstern family say, day-to-day decisions are made by Richard, Frank’s eldest son.

According to legal papers filed during the mid 1980s, Richard Morgenstern is “an experienced and successful investor” with a net worth of more than $2 million.


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