Washington’s famous letter on religious liberty under lock-and-key

I’ve read SO many times over the years about George Washington’s famously eloquent letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island.

The 1790 letter is famous for spelling out what religious liberty in the U.S. would mean: “For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In 1781, Washington had visited Newport and a meeting was held at the synagogue.

The Forward today put out a fascinating article about the letter’s whereabouts.

It turns out that the letter is held under lock-and-key, removed from public view, at an industrial park in Maryland.

Apparently, a fellow named Morris Morgenstern who grew up on the Lower East Side and became a successful financier and philanthropist, purchased the letter around 1949. A foundation in his name loaned the letter to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which lets few people see it.

Very strange.

Paul Berger from the Forward got to see it. But it wasn’t easy.

The letter is now said to be worth between $5 and $10 million.

The Newport congregation, called Touro Synagogue, was founded in 1658 by the first Jewish arrivals to North America. Touro is still going strong today and will host an annual reading of Washington’s letter on Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. (reservations required).

You can read the whole letter here.

Checking in on the East Ramapo schools

The Forward is weighing in on the ongoing Orthodox/non-Orthodox tensions in the East Ramapo school district.

The article focuses on the recent resignation of school board President Nathan Rothschild, who was subsequently charged with felony mail fraud, and an investigation of the district by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here is the Forward’s “nut graph” or a brief introduction to a very strange place:

*****

Just 40 minutes from Manhattan, East Ramapo is an ethnically diverse school district in the heart of Rockland County. The district encompasses two centers of the county’s burgeoning Orthodox population: the Hasidic enclave of New Square and the Orthodox hamlet of Monsey. Though members of the Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities in the district largely send their children to private religious schools, they held five of nine seats on the East Ramapo Board of Education until the board president’s recent resignation. Four of the five are Hasidic.

*****

The article doesn’t even mention that the board recently removed long-time Superintendent Ira Oustatcher or that the district is in terrible financial straits.

The board recently approved a budget proposal that would cut 89 jobs and still raise taxes by 7.53 percent, one of the largest increases in the region.

Yikes.

The photo is of a recent protest, outside the district offices, of the slipping quality of education.

Raising difficult questions about Jewish slumlords

Back in the spring, the Village Voice published a series on the worst landlords in New York City.

It’s a topic the Voice has visited many times over the years.

This year, a Conservative rabbi named Jill Jacobs wrote a column for the Forward about an extremely sensitive issue that arose when she read about the worst landlords in the Voice. Why, she wanted to know, were about half the landlords on the list Jewish — and significant figures in ultra-Orthodox communities?

She asked: “Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communities? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?”

Now the Voice has followed up on this very delicate question by asking a number of Jewish leaders to address the question. The headline is “How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord?” The responses make for fascinating reading.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of an Orthodox social-justice group, says (in part): “It is a concern for me. There’s injustice coming from every community, but when one publicly portrays their piety, the community naturally holds them to a higher standard. It’s always a concern of mine that ultra-Orthodox Jews are going to get scapegoated. So I think it’s up to us to clean it up, and not for outsiders to point fingers at Jews.”

Isaac Abraham, described as an “unofficial spokesman of Williamsburg’s Satmar Jews to the outside world,” says: “The landlord has to be responsible to provide services. But it gets to a point where a landlord is chasing his own tail. I didn’t create the phrase “Graffiti creates graffiti, vandalism creates vandalism.” Any landlord who doesn’t provide services, he should be hit by the book.”

Shmarya Rosenberg, a former member of Chabad Lubavitch who writes a controversial blog about the Orthodox world called FailedMessiah.com, says: “Once you’re inside the group, there are few crimes you can commit. There are few crimes that anyone can put against you. If the slumlord was doing it to hipsters or Puerto Ricans or blacks, it would be fine. They aren’t going to condemn that person or say he shouldn’t have an aliyah in synagogue or say he shouldn’t be rewarded.”

Joe Levin, an Hasidic Jew and private investigator, says: “I watch the news, and I see these things about these Orthodox guys. This is the nature of some people, screwing around for a little money and embarrassing the whole community. I say to myself, “If you have to do these things, why call yourself a rabbi? Why put this title on yourself? Why do it?” ”

Unfortunately, the public raising of these issues will bring the crazies out of the woodwork, especially on the Web (where so many crazies feel free to be themselves).

I was reading something on Yahoo News the other day about Bernie Madoff’s son committing suicide and half the comments were anti-Semitic rants.

But that is the world in which we live.

‘Forward 50’ an interesting Jewish mix

So the venerable Jewish paper The Forward has named its Forward 50 — a group of 50 Jews with influence on the Jewish and cultural zeitgeist.

The top 5 (in no particular order) are:

1. Sergey Brin, co-creator of Google.

2. Eric Cantor, minority whip in the House and the only Jewish Republican in Congress.

3. Misha Galperin, a big shot with the Jewish Agency of Israel who is promoting Jewish “peoplehood.”

4. Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

5. The novelist Nicole Krauss.

Others in the 50 include: Abe Foxman; anti-mosque blogger Pamela Geller; teachers union boss Randi Weingarten; actor Jesse Eisenberg; New York Met Ike Davis; musician/muse Debbie Friedman; and many, many more.

Jewish paper: Worries of ‘violence’ in East Ramapo

The venerable Jewish newspaper The Forward looks this week at the tensions in the East Ramapo school district — including the possibility of “violence.”

The article, while not terribly long, gives you a pretty good sense of what’s at stake:

*****

Although Orthodox Jews in the predominantly Jewish upstate New York villages of Monsey and New Square send their children to private religious schools, six of the eight elected members of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District are Orthodox. A ninth, who recently resigned and has yet to be replaced, is also Orthodox. Some non-Orthodox community members allege that the Orthodox members of the board support the religious schools at the expense of the public school system — claims that the Orthodox board denies. But people on both sides agree that anger over the issue is running high.

*****

The article focuses on whether the school board sold the Hillcrest Elementary School building to a yeshiva at a below-market rate. But it looks at this question in light of all the strange, internal pressures building up in the school district.

The writer, Josh Nathan-Kazis, quotes board President Nathan Rothschild, an Orthodox Jew, extensively. Rothschild says a few notable things, including that he sees himself as a representative of the private-school community.

About the non-Orthodox community losing control of the school board, he says “If you don’t get up and vote, then you deserve what you get.”

Nathan-Kazis writes that several people he interviewed are concerned about the possiblity of violence breaking out. He also quotes Antonio Luciano, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant who was defeated in the May school board elections, as saying that students have been reprimanded for blaming East Ramapo’s problems on “the Jews.”

The district is 56% black and 27% Hispanic.

It’s a pretty bleak picture overall.

Rothschild, who has served on the board for 15 years, explains why he is not running again: “You have no idea how demoralizing it is to sit at a meeting and be beat up by everybody. They say things that have parts of truth in it, and maybe more than just parts of truth. It’s a demoralizing thing. I don’t think anybody wants to go through that. I think we’d all love peace.”