The most deeply meaningful service that I’ve conducted as a rabbi at Shearith Israel is the annual memorial service at the congregation’s colonial-era cemetery. I had the pleasure of conducting it in May, 2010 and again in 2013. Today the cemetery is located in Chinatown, though when it was first established, the plot was just in the middle of some farmland! The oldest gravestone dates to the late 17th century, however it is possible that America’s first Jews actually purchased this particular piece of land back in 1656 when, according to records, they bought ‘a little hook of land.’ Some of the stones even contain Portuguese!
The cemetery was in use until the early 19th century (though some of its plots were reinterred at the congregation’s 21st st. cemetery in anticipation of the Bowery, which cut through its land). Buried there, are about twenty men who in some capacity participated in the American Revolution. Therefore, every year on the Sunday preceding Memorial Day Weekend, the congregation conducts a memorial service in their honor, planting American flags at their stones and reciting the hashcaba memorial prayer. The service is accompanied by a US Color Guard and it is a truly stirring event.
I had the privilege of announcing the name of each of the Patriots, and also told a bit more about some of them, while my Hebrew School students and teachers planted the flags. Among the honored were people with names like Seixes, Mendes, Nathan, Gomez, and Hart.
These Jewish men risked their lives to help establish the United States of America as well as Jewish life in America. They didn’t see a conflict between these two identities, but saw both roles as natural expressions of a shared value system. They could be observant Jews and loyal Americans with neither identity being sacrificed for the other. It was humbling to be in their presence.
Portraits Etched in Stone by Dr. David De Sola Pool