On March 8, 1772, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, then Minister of the Second Congregational Church of Newport, Rhode Island (later, president of Yale University), attended a Purim service in the local synagogue. He recorded the occasion in his diary:
There I saw Rabbi [Haim Isaac] Carigal I judge aet. 45. lately from the city of Hebron, the Cave of the Macpelah in the Holy Land. He was one of the two persons that stood by the Chusan at the Taubauh or Reading Desk while the Book of Esther was read. He was dressed in a red garment with the usual Phylacteries and habiliments, the white silk Surplice; he wore a high brown furr Cap, had a long Beard. He has the appearance of an ingenious & sensible Man.
The Holy Land visitor so colorfully described by Stiles was no stranger to the New World. A native of Hebron — he was born in 1733 and ordained as a rabbi twenty years later — Carigal had traveled widely in the Near East, Europe, and the Americas, acting on occasion as an itinerant rabbinic functionary. He had spent two years in Curacao before returning to Hebron in 1764. In 1768, he once again resumed his travels. For two and a half years, he served as a teacher in London and then spent a year in Jamaica. In the summer of 1772 he made his way to Philadelphia, then New York, and arrived in Newport in 1773 in time to celebrate the Purim holiday and to make the acquaintance of Ezra Stiles.
The Reverend Mr. Stiles had great curiosity about Jews and Judaism, and from his voluminous diaries we learn that between 1759 and 1775 no less than six rabbis visited Newport. Stiles sought them out, conversed with them and described them and their conversations. Rabbi Carigal impressed him most, and they spent much time together. Carigal supplied information about the Jews in other lands, in particular the Holy Land, noting that "in all Judea or Holy Land A.D. 1773" there were about one thousand families of Jews and twelve synagogues. From him Stiles also learned that there were three rabbis "settled in America, one in Jamaica, one in Surinam and one in Curacao,'' but "none on the Continent of North America."*
On May 28, the festival of Shavuot, Stiles was again in the synagogue, and this time he had the pleasure of hearing a sermon preached by Carigal in "Spanish" (Ladino?) which lasted for forty-seven minutes. Though few present were able to understand any part of the lengthy discourse, whose theme was "the Salvation of Israel," the occasion was auspicious for the twenty-five families who formed the Jewish community of Newport. Dignitaries from the community at large had been invited-Stiles noted Governor Wantan, Judge Oliver, and Judge Auchmuty — and all listened respectfully to the exotically garbed preacher speaking in a strange yet impressive tongue. "There was a Dignity and Authority about him, mixt with modesty," Stiles observed.
It was a moment that demanded preservation for posterity. Abraham Lopez, a native of Portugal and a former Marrano who had entered the Covenant of Abraham six years earlier, was entrusted with the task of translating the sermon into English. It was published later that year, the first Jewish sermon in America accorded that honor. Its title page reads: A Sermon Preached at the Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, Called "The Salvation of Israel, " on the Day of Pentecost, or Feast of Weeks, the 6th Day of the Month of Sivan, the year of Creation 5533, or, May 28, 1773. Being the Anniversary of giving the Law at Mount Sinai: By the Venerable Hocham, the Learned Rabbi, Haijim Isaac Carigal, of the City of Hebron, near Jerusalem in the Holy Land.
Sixty years later, another emissary, Rabbi Enoch Zundel of Jerusalem, went to America seeking aid for his impoverished brethren. With him he brought a letter to Mordecai M. Noah signed by a half dozen rabbis of the Holy Land beseeching aid. Translated by the Christian Hebraist William L. Roy, it reads in part:
The voice of Zion speaks weeping and lamenting, for the wretched state of her children: For their faces are black with hunger ... We are hungry, thirsty and naked. Our children ask for bread and we have none to give them.-And in addition to this, the Turks have laid us under a contribution of fifty thousand dollars, which if not paid will be the ruin of all the Jews here ... and [we] have sent on the Rabbi Enoch Zindal [sic] ... son of the great Rabbi Hersh, one of the most learned men in the world. He will fully explain to you our afflictions ... Help him by any way and means in your power, by obtaining donations, and forming societies among all denominations. And we will pray for you in all the holy places ... and we hope with all the scattered tribes and the Messiah at their head, to meet you soon in the Holy City, the desire of all nations.
The full text of the letter and an account of a meeting of Rabbi Zundel with the leading clergy of New York was published in the New York Christian Intelligencer and other newspapers.
The evening was spent in hearing the Rabbi, who is a truly polite and accomplished man, detail many interesting things relative to Jerusalem, the holy city and the condition of the Jews there ... He gave replies to many difficult questions proposed to him on various passages of the Hebrew Bible ...
He is fully in the belief of the Jews being recalled to their own land. And by the calculations he makes ... it is to commence in the year 1841 — only nine years hence.
The Rabbi's people at Jerusalem had heard of the exceeding benevolence and charity of the Americans. These are his own words: "You did much for the Greeks; and will you not admit, even as Christians, lovers of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, that you owe at least as much, nay, much more, TO US THE JEWS?"
And as this is the first appeal made to us as Christians, by the Jews, direct from Jerusalem, we should, by responding to the voice of suffering humanity, give them an evidence that we are, as Christians, their true and sincere friends.
Four ministers volunteered to receive any funds "which benevolent Christians may condescend to give."
Rabbi Enoch Zundel made such an impression that an engraving of him by A. A. Hoffay was published by N. M. Fried in 1833, showing the Rabbi wrapped in a prayer shawl and wearing a turbanlike head covering. He holds an open book in his hands. The first published American engraving of a contemporary Jew, the Library's copy of this rare print is in pristine condition.
*There were Jewish religious functionaries in North America at that time, called hazzan or minister, but no ordained rabbis.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).