Washington's Iconic Letter To Be Displayed

After Decade, Message of Tolerance Comes to Jewish Museum

forward montage

By Paul Berger

Published May 09, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.