In honor of the Fourth of July, Rabbi Bob Orkand, who is teaching our Summer Institute class on the History of Jews in America, shares with us a bit about the Jewish community at the time of the Declaration of Independence:
On July 4th we recognize the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of revolution. The Jews who lived in what would become the United States were a mixed mind concerning the possibility of freedom from British rule. Many Jews vacillated and pledged allegiance to both sides in the dispute for as long as they could. Where one was born and economic factors ultimately determined the loyalty of many colonists. When finally forced to choose, most of America’s 1,000 to 2,500 Jews cast their lot with those fighting for freedom.
According to the noted historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, up to 100 Jews fought in the revolutionary war, three attained high office in the Continental Army, and other Jews served as traders, suppliers, moneylenders, shopkeepers, and blockade-runners. Perhaps the most famous Jewish participant in the war was Haym Salomon, who played a significant role as “Broker to the Office of Finance.” His wartime generosity was well known at the time and his activities in support of revolution were publicly applauded.
Jews living through the war wrote of their sense that a divine hand was working to insure victory and the founding of a new nation. In fact, some compared King George to Pharaoh and themselves to Israel and saw the war as a modern Exodus story in which they were travelers on a sacred road to liberty.
Illustration is of Haym Salomon from the George Washington Bicentennial Commission.