Forward Campaign Led to Letter's Release

Investigative Series Started When a Reporter Decided To Dig

© George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

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

The Forward’s campaign to return to public view George Washington’s iconic letter on religious freedom started when reporter Paul Berger attended a lecture more than a year ago.

Jonathan Sarna, one of the foremost historians of American Jewry, told the group that the original letter – one of the most important documents in American history – was hidden from public view and that he did not know where it was.

When Berger heard that, he started digging for answers.

As the Forward detailed over several months of groundbreaking coverage, Berger discovered the original letter was locked away for nearly a decade in a nondescript art-storage facility near a football stadium in suburban Maryland.

Forward Editor Jane Eisner wrote in a Daily News opinion piece that keeping the letter under wraps was like keeping the Statue of Liberty closed to visitors. To experience the importance of Lady Liberty or Washington’s letter, you have to experience it firsthand, she explained.

Berger spent many weeks untangling the mystery of the letter. He discovered that it was on display for many years. But in 2002, it was removed from public view and placed in storage.

He reported that the private foundation that owns the document refused to make it public. It refused to say why.

Listen to Berger and Eisner discuss the letter on our weekly podcast.

He also looked for the broader story behind the letter’s being shut away. He explained to readers that Washington’s letter is part of a bigger story of the decline of B’nai B’rith’s Klutznick Museum.

The Forward wrote in an editorial that no one should be able to keep an iconic piece of American history hidden. That’s why we said it’s time to liberate the letter. And we called on others to join us in our demands.

In August, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, held its annual reading of the letter, which was originally addressed to its congregation. The Providence Journal quoted synagogue members agreeing that the letter should be on public display..

Forward founding editor Seth Lipsky also wrote about the letter in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which was widely linked by other publications and web sites.

There’s more. Berger travelled to Savannah, Ga., where he discovered that Washington’s first letter to the Jews has most likely been lost to history.

In December, he profiled Richard Morgenstern, the secretive owner of the document.

At last, the Forward learned that the letter will be returned to public view at the National Museum of American Jewish History, as part of an exhibit opening on June 29.


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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • 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.