|Vol. I, No. 10
Tebeth 5604, January 1844
The Jews in Savannah.
Early settlement of the Israelites in Savannah—Their religious history—That of their successors, &c.
Manuscript page 14. "1774, September 14. Having a sufficient number of Jews here to make a congregation, we came to a resolution to meet at the house of Mordecai Sheftall." The congregation convened punctually for a length of time at Mr. Sheftall's house. He was a man of exemplary piety, and adhered closely to all the rites and ceremonies of his faith. He had fitted up a room in his house, at his individual cost, for the accommodation of the congregation. Religious affairs progressed harmoniously, the members of the congregation were gradually augmenting, and experienced no interruption, until the commencement of the American successful struggle for liberty cause a temporary dissolution.
Some short time subsequent to the ratification of the definitive treaty between Great Britain and the United States, many Israelites arrived in Savannah, and made it their place of residence.
Manuscript, page 23. "1786, July the 7th, corresponding with the 1st day of Tamuz, 5546. We met, and re-established our congregation of K. K. Mickva Israel. We hired a place for a Snogo [synagogue], and chose the following named persons for the heads of the congregation:
"Philip Minis, Parnass; David N. Cardozo, Gabay; Levi Sheftall, Cushman Polock, Joseph Abrahams, Adjuntas; Emanuel De la Motta Hazan, (this gentleman acts gratis); Levy Abrahams; Secretary."
The house hired for a Snogo was owned by one Miss Morgan, and situated in the rear of St. James Square.
Manuscript, page 25. "1787, July 31, corresponding with the 16th day of Ab. The society called the Mashebet Nafish, laid this day the foundation stones for a wall to be built around the piece of ground given by Mordecai Sheftall for a burial ground. Laying the first stone was given to Mordecai Sheftall, the second stone to Levi Sheftall, the third stone to P. J. Cohen, the fourth stone, to Cushman Polock. The ground given for a cemetery was conveyed by Mordecai Sheftall, Esq., by deed in trust to the following named persons:—Philip Minis and Levi Sheftall, of Savannah; Isaac De Costa and Joshua Hart, of Charleston; Abraham Hart and Joseph Gomports, of London; Sampson Simson and Solomon Simson, of New York, and Isaac Hart and Jacob Rivera, of Newport, Rhode Island." This conveyance was made and executed in the thirteenth year of the reign of George the Third. The Snogo established in 1786 was sustained for many years. Service was performed regularly on the Sabbath and holidays, and on one occasion the assemblage numbered "73 males and females." The aged, the main prop of the Snogo, having closed their earthly career, removals, and the influence of a combination of untoward causes, conspired to produce a suspension of public worship, and the building was surrendered to its owner. On the 30th of November, 1790; "Levi Sheftall, Sheftall Sheftall, Cushman Polock, Joseph Abrahams, Mordecai Sheftall, Abraham Depass, and Emanuel De la Motta, and their successors," were by charter of incorporation declared to be a "Body corporate by the name and style of the Parnass and Adjuntas of Mickva Israel at Savannah." The requisitions of the charter have been obeyed, and the election of officers in no instance omitted on the day it prescribes. For a series of years after the building used as a Snogo was given up, there was no place for public worship: indeed, it was not discoverable that any marked predilection to have one existed. This, however, might be rationally imputed to the paucity of Israelites who inhabited Savannah, and the want of intelligence on doctrinal points of the religion of their ancestors. There were four or five individuals among them, not more advanced in years than biblical learning, who always looked with cherished anticipations to that period, when, through their instrumentality, a temple should be reared in Savannah, dedicated to the hallowed worship of the "God of Israel." Some of them lived to see their fond hopes realized; a Snogo of neat workmanship, through their untiring efforts was erected, and consecrated on the 21st July, 1820, and consumed by fire (accidentally) on the 4th December, 1829. The building committee was Abraham Delyon, David Lyon, Moses Sheftall, and Sheftall Sheftall. The three first named are "humble tenants of the grave," the last survives, far advanced in honourable old age. After this calamitous event, which was deeply regretted by the liberal-minded of all sects, Dr. Moses Sheftall, who was president of the congregation, roused to action all his energies to supply the loss sustained in the destruction of the Snogo. An investigation of the finances of the congregation took place, and it was satisfactorily ascertained that auxiliary aid would become necessary to insure the building of another Snogo. After some time had elapsed, Dr. Sheftall commenced his work. Subscriptions in money were liberally made by the limited number of persons to whom the list was presented, as it was not designed or intended to raise more funds than were absolutely necessary, together with what was in hand, to defray the cost of building a Snogo by contract. Those of different sects who voluntarily aided us in building a house of worship, have entitled themselves to a tribute of our warmest and most grateful thanks, and evinced a readiness to reciprocate favours, the like of which have been extended by some of the Israelites, both male and female, from the creation of the Union Society, to all the present charitable institutions of the city of Savannah. The present Snogo is built of brick, on a lot of ground granted by the corporation of Savannah to the Hebrew congregation, and I had the honour, Mr. Editor, of being present when you imparted to its consecration all the solemnity its great importance legitimately demanded. It is (as I have understood) in serious contemplation at a proper season, to enlist the services of a gentleman of ability to discharge the functions of Hazan. When this "shall come to pass," then the Snogo shall awake from its slumber; and rise from its solitude,—its walls echo the gladsome song of thankfulness, and "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one," shall be heard with the holiest feelings.
I have, Mr. Editor, brought the history of ourselves to a conclusion. It might probably serve to beguile some leisure moments of your distant readers. It will, I am convinced, convey a proud and elevated interest to many of those who reside in the city of Oglethorpe, particularly the descendants of the settlers of 1733, whose adventurous grandsires left their homes for the more perfect enjoyment of religious liberty in the untried clime of the new world, and whose fathers, born upon the genial soil of Savannah, now quietly repose within its bosom.
Mordecai Sheftall, Sen.
Savannah, 24th August, 1843.
We were right in our supposition that Mr. Sheftall had omitted doing justice to Dr. De la Motta in passing over with silence his agency in erecting the first Synagogue at Savannah. Upon the principle we started from the commencement of our work, to give every one his just credit, we made some inquiry concerning the matter, and have the most undoubted assurance that the following statement is essentially correct:—When the doctor took up his residence at Savannah, he found that, besides the lot given by the city to the congregation, they had seven or eight small buildings whichwere rented out, which as such were but of little interest to the Israelites. Upon inquiry, the doctor ascertained from a respectable mechanic that he would build a Synagogue such as was needed, on the lot given by the city, provided a lease of the above small buildings were granted him by the congregation free of change for a term of eight years. The doctor thereupon convened the congregation; a majority of the members agreed with the proposition, and the undertaking was commenced under his special care, attention, direction and superintendence, aided by a building committee. When the building was finished, the doctor consecrated it in July 1820, on which occasion he delivered a discourse which was published by request; and subsequently he officiated gratuitously until he left the city in 1823. In relation to the foregoing, we have received from one of our correspondents the annexed remarks, to which we call the attention of our readers, as also to the accompanying letters from the late Presidents Jefferson and Madison, as they evince the gratifying interest which these exalted statesmen and patriots took in matters relating to our people and religion.—We will also merely add that, as far as we can learn, J. De la Motta Jr., Esq., of Savannah, a relation of the doctor, was mainly instrumental in erecting the present Synagogue.—Ed. Oc.
To the Rev. Isaac Leeser.
REV. SIR—A subscriber to your periodical having noticed your remarks on the injustice done to Dr. Jacob De la Motta by your reporter of the Jews of Savannah, requests you will publish in your next number, as somewhat connected with the history of that congregation, the annexed letters from the late ex-presidents of these United States, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to Dr. De la Motta, on the subject of his address, delivered on the occasion of the consecration of the Synagogue in that place in 1820. Their insertion in your journal will satisfy your readers of the omission of your historical reporter.
Monticello, Sept. 1, 1820.
Th. Jefferson returns his thanks to Dr. De la Motta for the eloquent discourse on the consecration of the Synagogue of Savannah which he has been so kind as to send him. It excites in him the gratifying reflection that his own country has been the first to prove to the world two truths, the most salutary to human society, that man can govern himself, and that religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension: the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is "divided we stand, united we fall." He is happy in the restoration, of the Jews particularly, to their social rights, and hopes they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science, as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government. He salutes Dr. De la Motta with sentiments of great respect.
To Dr. Jacob De la Motta, Savannah, Ga.
Montpellier, August, 1820.
Sir—I have received your letter of the 7th inst., with the discourse delivered at the Consecration of the Hebrew Synagogue at Savannah, for which you will please accept my thanks.
The history of the Jews must for ever be interesting. The modern part of it s at the same time, so little generally known, that every ray of light on the subject has its value.
Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect; and it is particularly pleasing to observe in the good citizenship of such as have been most distrusted and oppressed elsewhere, a happy illustration of the safety and success of this experiment of a just and benignant policy. Equal laws protecting equal rights are found as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country, as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good-will among citizens of every religious denomination, which are necessary to social harmony, and most favourable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your congregation brings them fully within the scope of these observations. I tender you, sir, my respects and good wishes.
To Dr. Jacob De la Motta, Savannah, Ga.