Washington's Iconic Letter To Be Displayed

After Decade, Message of Tolerance Comes to Jewish Museum

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By Paul Berger

Published May 09, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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After a decade hidden from view, one of the most important documents in American history is set to burst back onto public display, the Forward has learned.

George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in which the first president vowed that America would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” will form the centerpiece of a special show at the National Museum of American Jewish History, opening on June 29.

Ivy Barsky, the NMAJH’s director and chief operating officer, said she was “absolutely thrilled” to have acquired the letter, widely regarded as Washington’s most eloquent statement on religious liberty, on a three-year loan. Barsky said her museum’s location in Philadelphia, opposite the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, meant that one of the founding documents of the nation “is really and truly where it belongs.”


Click to view a high resolution version of the letter.

As the Forward reported in a series of articles and editorials last year, Washington’s letter spent decades on display in the Klutznick Museum at B’nai B’rith International’s flagship headquarters in Washington. In 2002, when financial pressures forced B’nai B’rith to relocate to smaller offices, the majority of its collection, including the letter, was put into storage. Many scholars did not know where the letter was until the Forward revealed it to be housed in an art storage facility in suburban Maryland.

Several institutions, including the NMAJH and the Library of Congress, have tried for years to pry the letter away. But B’nai B’rith claimed that its hands were tied by the letter’s legal owner, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, which would not allow the letter to be moved.

B’nai B’rith’s former president Moishe Smith told the Forward last December that he tried to convince the foundation to loan the letter to the NMAJH for its official opening in 2010 but was turned down.

Barsky, who met with the Forward at a hotel in lower Manhattan on May 7, said she did not know what prompted the Morgenstern foundation’s representative, Richard Morgenstern, to change his mind. He first called the museum towards the end of last year, initiating several months of conversation that resulted in the loan agreement.

Josh Perelman, the NMAJH’s chief curator, said he found Morgenstern to be a person who “cares deeply” for the letter and who understands its “critical importance for American Jewish and American history.”

Perelman described the loan as a “remarkable opportunity” for the museum.


Read the remarkable story of how the Forward untangled the mystery of Washington’s letter and led the fight for it to be returned to public display.


He said Washington’s letter was in “magnificent condition,” though it had been laminated. Perelman said lamination was “standard practice” in conservation about 60 years ago and that many institutions, including the National Archives, hold documents that have been laminated. He hopes the letter will be delaminated in the future.


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