In 1768, Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, appointed 23-year-old Gershom Mendes Seixas as its hazzan, or reader. Seixas was one of six children of Isaac Mendes Seixas, a Portuguese converso whose family had to flee to London after Isaac's father was accused, in 1725, of secretly continuing to practice his ancient faith. In 1730, Isaac left London for New York, where in 1741 he married Rachel Levy, an Ashkenazic Jew. Their son Gershom was the product of this "mixed" Sephardic-Ashkenazic marriage common to the New York Jewish community in the 1700s.
New York City in the 1760s had fewer than 300 Jews, and one synagogue, Shearith Israel, which followed the ancient Sephardic minhag despite having a majority of Ashkenazic members. The congregation was a kehillah, or synagogue community, the center of Jewish life for this tightly knit group. The community gathered at Shearith Israel to celebrate holidays and life events together: marriages, births and deaths. As hazzan of the congregation, Gershom Mendes Seixas was at the center of the community's effort to I've Jewishly while immersed in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of America — a setting much less hostile than the one that drove Seixas' family, one generation earlier, from Portugal.
We note that Seixas was hazzan of Shearith Israel, not its rabbi. It was not until the mid-19th century that America attracted its first permanent ordained rabbi, that is, a religious leader and teacher trained by senior rabbis and certified as competent in Torah, Talmud and Halacha. Prior to the 1850s, ordained European rabbis would not remain in North America; they were apparently unwilling to live without learned colleagues, or to serve congregants who had, with few exceptions, fallen away from strict Orthodox practices. Seixas, as the only religious official in the congregation, functioned as spiritual leader, interpreter of religious law, supervisor of kashrut, performer of marriages and funerals and all the varied duties we now associate with ordained rabbis.
Seixas received his Jewish education primarily from his father. He was not a college graduate, but self educated in Talmud and secular literature, including Christian texts. New York's Jewish community was simply too small to live isolated from its non-Jewish neighbors, and Seixas had many friends and associates among the city's Protestant elite. One sign of the respect in which Seixas was held was his appointment, in 1784, as trustee of Columbia College, now Columbia University.
Perhaps nothing better accounts for Seixas' esteem in the general New York community than his actions during the American Revolution. Despite the fact that his congregation was split on the issue, in 1775 Seixas — a strong advocate for American independence — persuaded a majority that Shearith Israel should close, rather than operate during a British occupation of New York. Just three weeks after, his wife Elkaleh had a miscarriage, and doubtless with a heavy heart at leaving his flock behind, Seixas packed the congregation's books and sacred scrolls and removed them, with his family, to his father-in-law's home in Strafford, Connecticut. In 1780, Seixas relocated to Philadelphia to become hazzan of congregation Mickve Israel. Despite his personal abhorrence of war, in his sermons Seixas regularly called on G-d to bless the Revolution, the Congress and George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the patriot armies. He considered the American cause, with its emphasis on individual liberty, as a just war, and independence a blessing for America's Jews.
At wars end in 1784, Congregation Shearith Israel invited Seixas to resume his pulpit. At the time, Elkaleh was ill and Gershom was content in his Philadelphia post, but was ultimately persuaded to return to New York, where he served as hazzan or "minister" at Shearith Israel until his death in 1816. In 1787, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, Seixas was one of three clergymen who participated a sign of respect for Seixas and the role that Jews had played in the founding of the new nation, and a reflection of Washington's own ecumenical views.
Seixas devoted much of his time and prestige to encouraging charity toward the poor. Contrary to Christian doctrine, Seixas preached that riches were no sign of grace, nor poverty a sign of disgrace. Each status was a challenge from G-d: for the poor to endure and overcome hardship, and for the wealthy to grow virtuous by acts of charity. Seixas believed that the very purpose of a fortunate person's life was to help others, regardless of whether they were rewarded for their generosity.
When he died, Seixas was mourned throughout New York City. The trustees of Columbia College commissioned a medal with his likeness, shown here. His friend, Dr. Jacob de la Motta, noted that, during the last seven years of his life, "his sufferings were beyond the ken of human conception," yet Seixas served his congregation until near the every end. The first American-born hazzan of Shearith Israel, Seixas still serves as a model for the contemporary American rabbi.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society