Published May 11, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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The letter has been liberated.

We’ve been waiting to write that for a long time, ever since our Paul Berger went on a national search for George Washington’s original, iconic 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, the one famously promising a new United States government that would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Once Berger found it locked away in an arts storage facility in suburban Maryland, the Forward launched a campaign to persuade the letter’s owner to make it public. And he has. In just the right place.

After being hidden from sight for a decade, the historic document, weathered and slightly torn with age but in remarkably good condition, will be the centerpiece of a special exhibition celebrating religious freedom at the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.

The museum, which opened in an expensive, expansive new building just a year and a half ago, deserves enormous credit for doggedly pursuing the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, named for the man who purchased the letter from a descendant of the Newport family to which it was written. The NMAJH is still finding its place and its voice, and this ambitious project ought to secure its position as a destination for anyone interested in exploring the American story through a Jewish lens.

The real credit, however, goes to Richard Morgenstern, Morris’s reclusive grandson, who essentially runs the foundation on behalf of his elderly father, Frank. The Forward has written about the younger Morgenstern for a year now, urging him to break his silence, badgering him to release the letter. We don’t know precisely what made him decide to call the museum late last year and offer to loan his treasured document, but it’s clear that he takes his stewardship responsibilities extremely seriously. Only when he was assured of the safety and security of the letter did he agree to allow it to travel and be on display.

He has proferred the nation a great gift.

Now it is up to us to use it well.

Daily, there are reminders of the contemporary relevance of Washington’s message: America was meant to be a nation where individual religious expression is not just tolerated, but also welcome; where belief is not mandated and where all that is required of its people is to be, in Washington’s words, “good citizens.” As this promise, so astonishing for its time, echoes in our current political discussion and on the campaign trail, it needs to be remembered for what it is: a bold declaration of religious liberty.

That is, the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion. It’s that last clause that is so at risk today.

This renewed focus on Washington’s letter comes at an auspicious time in the Jewish calendar. As each evening we count the Omer from Passover to Shavuot, tracing the story of our national liberation to the receipt of the law that frames how we live, we are reminded that freedom is not a one-time, cinematic event, but a lengthy and challenging process. Liberation — from Egypt, from slavery, from whatever enslaves us today — will only be realized when we figure out how to live freely, in a condition that allows others to also be free.

Washington’s stirring words only marked the beginning of the process within the American context; it guaranteed religious freedom to Jews, but did not magically erase persecution, abolish slavery, forestall segregation or eliminate racism. That has taken another two centuries, and the task is not yet complete.

So we should all view the letter, marvel at its poetry and promise, engage in its challenge and never forget how much work lies ahead.

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