Just a little more than a year after George Washington became America’s first president, Levi Sheftall, a Jew from Savannah, wrote him a letter. Sheftall, president of Congregation Mickve Israel, congratulated Washington on behalf of his fellow Savannah Jews, who had high hopes for religious freedom in their new country.
But as if to prove that even in its infancy, American Jewry was rife with jealousy and infighting, this seemingly innocuous letter caused an uproar.
Why was Savannah first, Jews in other communities wanted to know. Congregations in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C. and Richmond, Va. soon remedied the matter, sending a joint letter of congratulation to Washington. But not before the Jews of Newport, R.I., had sent a letter of their own. The rest is history.
Washington’s famous reply to the Jews of Newport, in which he vowed that America would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” continues to resonate today as an American pledge of religious freedom, even though the document disappeared from public view 10 years ago. As the Forward reported earlier this year, it is owned by a private foundation and currently held in an art storage facility in suburban Maryland.
The fate of the remaining two letters couldn’t be more different. The letter to the four congregations is held in a climate-controlled vault by Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia. “We will never let it out of our sight,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Albert Gabbai.
The Savannah letter, it seems, has been lost.
Rabbi Saul Rubin, who has spent decades researching the history of Savannah’s Jews, thinks it may have been destroyed in a fire 200 years ago. But John Sheftall, Levi’s direct descendant, believes that it’s in private hands. “My firm belief is that it is out there somewhere,” Sheftall said from his home in Columbus, Ga. “It would have been valued, it would have been saved and it would have been passed on to somebody.”
The letter has been missing for so long that many Savannah Jews don’t even know it is gone. During a recent visit to the city, American-Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna said a docent in the temple museum assured him the letter was in the congregation’s archive, even though it’s not there.
“It is a reminder,” Sarna said, “that we often don’t seem to know where these great documents are.”
This is particularly striking at Mickve Israel, custodian of one of American Jewry’s most important collections of artifacts and documents. Although the synagogue cherishes its illustrious history and does its best to celebrate it, the congregation may also have lost and neglected — and in one or two cases may be continuing to neglect — some of its most important possessions.
“When I came here, they had no appreciation of their history at all,” said Rubin, a soft-spoken 81-year-old who was the rabbi of the congregation from 1972 to 1986.
Rubin spent years poring over old records and books of minutes, as well as searching through microfilms at the Georgia Historical Society, to publish the definitive history of the congregation in 1983. He said that many of the artifacts that now make up the museum exhibition were tucked away in odd corners of the synagogue. Letters from Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were discovered in a safe. A photocopy of the synagogue’s 1790 charter of incorporation was found in a tuxedo box in a synagogue closet. A 15th-century Sefer Torah, thought to be one of the oldest in the United States, had been stored in a bookcase. Rubin said that until he arrived, no one in the congregation thought to display any of these pieces because “they didn’t believe they had anything to show.”
Though the synagogue’s Washington letter, which takes pride of place in a special display of one dozen presidential letters, is a copy of a copy made by Washington’s secretary, nowhere in the display does it indicate that the original is lost. Nor does it say whether the originals of the other 11 letters that surround it are missing, too. Bobbie Levy, a docent, was asked what she tells visitors if they asked about the whereabouts of the original Washington letter.
“We fudge as best we can,” she said.
History takes center stage in Savannah. A constant stream of visitors wend their way beneath majestic oak trees to gaze at the city’s perfectly preserved antebellum homes. Each of the 22 town squares is embellished with statues or plaques commemorating key people and events that forged the state of Georgia and the United States of America — from Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who extended a welcoming hand to early Georgia settlers, to cavalry general Casimir Pulaski, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Savannah.
Mickve Israel, a soaring Gothic Revival building that stands just a few feet from the memorial to Pulaski, plays a small yet significant part in this story.
America’s third-oldest congregation, Mickve Israel was founded in Savannah just five months after British Gen. James Oglethorpe arrived in Georgia in 1733 with the first 120 settlers. Its members were crucial to the early survival of the city and to its defense during the Revolutionary War. Dr. Samuel Nunez almost single-handedly saved the colony during its first years when an epidemic of dysentery threatened to snuff out the settlers’ dreams. A generation later, Mordecai Sheftall helped lead Savannah’s fight for independence and, according to congregational folklore, became the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Revolutionary War.
Most of the early Jewish immigrants were Sephardim, who had to flee Georgia soon after arriving because of the regular threat of attack by Spanish troops stationed in Florida. The Sephardim knew that the Spanish would have dealt harshly with descendants of Jews who had fled the Inquisition. They left behind just a handful of Ashkenazi congregants in the city.
Although the Sephardim quickly moved on to New York and Philadelphia, Mickve Israel knows a lot about these founding settlers, thanks to historical records that have survived to the present day. In 2008, the congregation published a glossy book to celebrate its 275th anniversary, which boasted that Mickve Israel was the only Jewish congregation in the United States to have maintained records from Revolutionary times.
“New York’s Shearith Israel has fragmentary records prior to the Revolution,” claimed the book, called “Our Legacy.” “Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel’s records only date from the federal period; and early records from Newport, Charleston, and Richmond cannot be found.”
But Mickve Israel’s book did not mention that for decades, if not hundreds of years, many of those important documents were missing in Savannah, too. The most crucial of the documents were the Sheftall Diaries, which provided a detailed record of the community’s early years between 1733 and 1808.
The diaries, which logged births, deaths, marriages, gossip and minor scandals, also provided a complete list of the 42 Jewish men, women and children — one of whom died en route — who set sail for America. They were written by Benjamin Sheftall, one of the original Jewish settlers to Savannah, who passed on the responsibility to his son Levi, who wrote the letter to Washington.
By the 20th century, these diaries had been largely forgotten. Until, in 1957, a wealthy Georgian matriarch, Elfrida De Renne Barrow, donated them to the University of Georgia. “We knew they existed,” said Marion Mendel, Benjamin Sheftall’s direct descendant. “But we didn’t know where they were or who had them.”
Mendel, 94, was sitting in the living room of an elegant fifth-floor condominium that has views across the trees and rooftops toward the golden dome of Savannah’s City Hall. Her great-great-great grandfather was the Revolutionary War hero Mordecai Sheftall, the half-brother of Levi.
In front of Mendel stood a glass coffee table that doubled as a display case for an array of family silverware. Mendel pointed out “Mor-dee-kay’s” shoe buckle and his son Sheftall Sheftall’s birth spoon. Then she rose from the chair to point out family heirlooms that dotted her apartment: paintings, furniture and crockery. “My family just never threw anything out,” she said, leading the way into a den where she kept items that she said needed protection from light.
She flicked a switch, and the room was illuminated to reveal half a dozen yellowed documents framed on the wall, including Mordecai Sheftall’s handwritten account of his capture and imprisonment by the British in Antigua and a parole document in which he promised not to take up arms against the Crown.
When Gary Zola, executive director of the American Jewish Archives, visited this same apartment a few months earlier, he said he was amazed. Mendel had opened an old bureau to reveal a collection of letters dating from Revolutionary times through the end of the 19th century. Mendel said, “I can remember as a child sitting in front of the desk, opening the drawer, unfolding them, reading them and putting them back.”
Zola said the collection was a treasure trove. He dispatched an archivist to put all the letters into protective Mylar. “They’re invaluable,” he said. “If you look at any book of Jews in Georgia, you realize the Sheftalls were there at the beginning and critically important to the leadership of the community from its earliest stages.”
In the coming months, the letters will be scanned and digitized so that they can remain with Mendel’s family. But their future, and that of her collection, is uncertain. Will it be divided up between her two children? Or will she donate the documents and artifacts to a museum or an archive?
“I know I want them to stay in Savannah,” Mendel said. “I don’t want them to leave the city anymore.”
Lynette Stoudt, senior archivist at Georgia Historical Society and a part-time archivist for the Savannah Jewish Archives, said everyone is wondering what will happen to the Sheftall letters. The archive catalog already includes some of the dozen presidential letters that the congregation displays on its museum wall. Mickve Israel still has original letters from presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, she said, but only copies of letters from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Although Rubin prizes the Washington letter, he believes the letters from Jefferson and Madison are more important still. The two presidents wrote to Mickve Israel in response to an address given by a prominent congregant, Jacob De la Motta, at the consecration of the first synagogue building, in 1820. Like Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, both presidents addressed religious tolerance in America. Madison, in his letter, wrote of the “perfect equality of rights” that the United States secured “for every religious sect.” Jefferson was more effusive, writing that America proved that “religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissention (sic)” and that he hoped Jews would one day take their seats “at the board of government.”
Zola said that these letters, along with others written to a few Jewish congregations of the period, were crucial “to the creation of the American Jewish psyche” during the early 19th century. He said that when the framers of the Constitution wrote of their lofty goal of religious liberty, it was unclear whether that included liberty for anyone other than Christians. Jefferson’s and Madison’s letters put “flesh and sinew onto the skeleton of the Constitution,” he said, showing that the founders truly believed in religious freedom that fostered “harmony and tranquility” for all.
But where the originals of these letters are is anyone’s guess. James Hutson, chief of the Library of Congress’s manuscript division, said the library had the original of the De la Motta letter to Madison and Jefferson, but it had only copies of the Washington and Jefferson letters to Savannah’s Jews. Madison’s letter is of questionable provenance. “It is difficult to determine whether Madison’s letter to De la Motta [stored at the library] is an original or a copy,” Hutson said.
Like the Washington letter, the original of the Jefferson and Madison letters could turn up someday. If so, it might not surprise Kaye Kole, founder of the Savannah Jewish Archives. Like Rubin, Kole said she had found many valuable items, including old books of minutes, letters and documents, in random areas of Mickve Israel. She also has some concerns about the way one or two items are stored today, including a medieval Torah scroll, which is displayed in a cabinet in the synagogue museum, beneath the glare of ceiling spotlights.
Kole said the museum specialist who designed the space wanted the scrolls to be in a secure case and displayed under very low light, but her advice was ignored. “This one they take out once a year and hold it up,” Kole said. “It scares the hell out of me.”
Eileen Lobell, co-chair of the synagogue’s museum committee, said she has no recollection of the synagogue being told to keep the scrolls in low light. “The only thing she [the museum specialist] said was not to have flashbulbs from cameras,” said Lobell, who added that one rabbi remarked that the deerskin scrolls were “in such good shape” because Savannah’s high humidity had prevented them from drying out. “We have never had it hermetically sealed and never had it in special light,” she said of the scroll.
Lobell did agree that the congregation has only recently begun to appreciate the value of its artifacts. “They had no idea of the uniqueness of their history,” she said. Congregants took for granted that the items were “theirs and that was it…. They weren’t even welcoming of the idea of tourists coming through their synagogue.”
Today, the museum gets about 8,000 visitors per year. With so many people, Jew and Gentile, showing an interest in Mickve Israel’s history, Rubin said the congregation cannot help but look after its artifacts.
“I think today they are extremely cautious,” said Rubin. “They recognize this is their key feature, their great treasure.”
This story "Washington's First Letter to Jews Lost to History" was written by Paul Berger.