Uncovered Documents Show the Spiritual Heroism of a Jewish Patriot in the American Revolution

The below piece was first published by By Rafael Hoffman on Hamodia at: https://hamodia.com/prime/for-country-and-for-kashrus/

Uncovered Documents Show the Spiritual Heroism of a Jewish Patriot in the American Revolution

Struggles to uphold Jewish practices and incidents of harassment tinged with anti-Semitism are no stranger to present-day Jewish news. To find a vivid and well-documented story of both from the time of the American Revolution is nothing short of extraordinary.

Yet, that is exactly what has emerged from a recently discovered set of documents detailing the brief imprisonment of Mordecai Sheftall, the highest ranking Jewish officer in the Continental army and one of the most prominent Jewish supporters of the patriot cause.

Although much is known of the central role that Sheftall played in the fledgling Jewish community in his hometown of Savannah, and of his suffering at the hands of his British captors, it was not until the unearthing of a diary kept by a fellow prisoner that light was shed on his self-sacrifice to maintain his adherence to kashrus under the most trying of circumstances.

“Pork for dinner. The Jews Mr. Sheftall & son refused to eat their pieces, & their knives & forks were ordered to be greased with it. … It is a happiness that Mr. Sheftall is a fellow sufferer. He bears it with such fortitude as is an example to me.” So wrote Reverend Moses Allen, a patriot minister who was jailed together with Mordecai Sheftall and his son, Sheftall Sheftall, aboard the British prison ship Nancy in 1779.

“We certainly knew that Sheftall had been captured; what we did not know was that the British not only mistreated him, but that they mistreated him as a Jew. Nor did we know that he was so eager to maintain his faith to the extent that he refused to eat non-kosher food, even in prison,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Professor at Brandeis University and a noted authority on the history of Jews in America. “Most people incorrectly assume that Jews in early America did not keep anything, but this is a reminder of how wrong this is, as we see that Sheftall was quite punctilious.”

Professor Sarna added that the writings were doubly valuable. They are not only a rare documentation of Jews and Judaism in Revolutionary America, but also because they come from a third-person account, as opposed to writings by the subjects themselves.

“We have so few letters that describe the experience of a Jew captured in the American Revolution. This is a new chapter in the normative history of American Judaism,” he said.

As the diary entry suggests, it was not unusual for people in the late 18th century to travel with their own cutlery, a commodity which was not always easy to come by at the time. Such a move was even more essential for the kosher traveler, long before the age of disposable utensils.

Jews were present in North America since shortly after the establishment of a European presence there, and a community in England had been slowly growing since their having been readmitted to the country by Oliver Cromwell in 1656. Still, their numbers and visibility in both England and North America were quite low in 1779.

As such, Baruch Fogel, who teaches about Jewish history in early America at Touro College, was taken aback not only by Sheftall’s level of commitment, but by the apparent understanding that his captors had of kashrus.

“It’s interesting that there was enough knowledge about keeping kosher that the British understood this was something that was abhorrent to him and that they even seem to know that it would be a problem for a religious Jew to have his utensils smeared with unkosher meats. This at a time and place when there were maybe 2,000 Jews in America. It’s something that I was quite surprised by,” he said.

A Watery Tale

By 1778, Sheftall, who supported the patriot cause from its inception, had attained the rank of colonel in the Continental Army and was charged with the task of purchasing and delivering supplies to troops in Georgia and South Carolina. The Continental Army and supporting militias won a set of impressive victories in the region for a time, but ultimately when the city of Savanah fell to the British, Mordecai and his 15-year-old son found themselves fugitives. Several of their compatriots escaped across the Savannah River, but young Sheftall could not swim. The two were captured, along with 185 other Americans.

Around the same time, the British had burned Rev. Allen’s meeting house and he found himself together with the Sheftalls beneath the decks of the Nancy. There, they and other prisoners suffered terribly under the command of Captain Samuel Tate.

On February 8, 1779, Allen jumped overboard and attempted to escape by swimming to shore, together with two French prisoners. He drowned in the process, and ultimately his body, with his now water-stained prison diary, were returned to the ship.

Eleven years later, when Sheftall heard that Tate had been permitted to remain in America after the war and was living in New Hampshire, he penned a letter expressing his outrage, and revealing even more of the captain’s cruelty. It also told a story of Sheftall’s own humanity.

“Some few days after [Rev. Allen] was picked up, and though there was a quantity of boards on board the ship, which this man caused his boats to pick up; bring on board, and I offered him two half Johanneses out of three, that I had, for as many boards, as would make a coffin for the poor parson; some of the soldiers offered to make the coffin; yet [Tate] refused to let me have the boards, saying Rebels had no business with coffins.”

“Johanneses” are a reference to Portuguese currency, named for King Johannes V, which were one of several foreign moneys commonly used in the colonies. Each was worth about six pounds sterling, a significant sum in those days — particularly for a destitute prisoner.

Other passages of the letter describe the great deprivation and suffering borne at the hands of Captain Tate, as well as Sheftall’s eventual success in procuring additional rations for his fellow prisoners.

Prof. Fogel pointed to Sheftall’s heroic, albeit unsuccessful, efforts to provide a proper burial for the minister as a sign of the unique kinship early American Jews felt with other devout countrymen.

“To many, this small Jewish community that existed in the colonies was not looked at as suspicious outsiders, but as people of the Book, and there was a natural bond and camaraderie between a Jew and a reverend who were both enthusiastic patriots,” he said. “From Allen’s letter about Sheftall, you see that he had tremendous respect for his moral strength, and from how hard Sheftall worked to bury him, it seems he had mutual respect for him as well.”

Mordecai Sheftall was paroled on February 25, but his son was not released until June. The two made their way north, where they remained for the duration of the war.

Rev. Allen’s diary pages were ultimately saved and sent to his brother, another patriot minister, Thomas Allen, known as “the fighting parson.” The contents of the letter were once published by the Allen family, but received relatively little public attention, and the whereabouts of the original copies were unknown to scholars.

The location of the diary and the story of Sheftall’s spiritual heroism only caught the attention of more in the field after Allen’s descendants approached Nathan Raab, a Philadelphia-based dealer in rare historic autographs and documents, and presented the originals for sale.

“Accounts of prisoners from ships in general are very uncommon, and references to Jews practicing their faith in 18th-century America even more so. The fact that Sheftall was willing to give his last penny to have Allen buried speaks to their friendship, and the fact that the British duress did not deter him from keeping his faith shows us a different element of bravery during the war,” said Mr. Raab.

The diary — together with Sheftall’s own letter describing his imprisonment, which was also entrusted to the Allen family — has since been sold to a private collector with personal connections to the Sheftall family.

Of Jews and Judaism in Early America

Well before the emergence of the Allen papers, Sheftall’s commitment to kashrus was well known from several writings of the time.

In 1738, Rev. Johann Boltzius, a minster who also lived in Savannah, commented that, while many of the Jews there there were lax in their religious observance, the Sheftalls and another family, the Minises, “would rather starve than eat meat they do not slaughter themselves.”

Like many Jews living in remote locations at the time, there is ample documentation that Mordecai Sheftall possessed his own shechitah knife, which he was adept at using.

“Don’t forget to bring your sharp knife with you and then you shall not fast here unless ’tis your own fault, as I am putting up some sheep to fatten,” wrote a friend, John Wereat to Sheftall in 1788.

Sheftall’s biographer, B.H. Levy, quotes this and one other similar letter from another non-Jew as evidence of his subject’s dedication to Judaism.

Prof. Sarna conjectured that Sheftall’s refusal to eat pork even while in captivity demonstrates a specific revulsion for such items more than for other non-kosher foods.

“It was always a special taboo in the Jewish mind and something that helped distinguish Jews from their neighbors,” he said. “It seems it was a line he didn’t want to cross; it was something that defined Jewish identity.”

While it is difficult to determine how representative of early American Jews Sheftall’s dedication to kashrus was, the phenomenon was certainly not an isolated one. Prof. Sarna points to multiple do)cumented instances during that period of Jews traveling with shechitah knives in their possession, so that they could slaughter and eat chickens on their travels. He also pointed to several records from shuls of the time where leaders voiced concerns over levels of shemiras Shabbos and kashrus as a sign that, while lapses indeed occurred and many Jews became completely assimilated, the basics of Yiddishkeit were maintained by many.

“It was a free country, and unlike in European communities where the kehillah could put a great deal of pressure, there was no one who had that type of authority here. You find all sorts of behaviors, but in many cases we simply don’t know what observance really looked like at the time,” he said.

In addition to the open question of how many Jews of the colonial and revolutionary era would have joined Sheftall in his loyalty to kashrus, is the question of how many shared his enthusiasm for the patriot cause?

The role of Haym Solomon as the Revolution’s financier is well known. Far less is written about Isaac Touro, chazzan of Newport’s Touro Synagogue and father of philanthropist Judah Touro, who was a dedicated loyalist. Newport’s community, with its strong business ties to Great Britain, would remain largely loyal to the crown, while those of Philadelphia were strongly patriot. Others, such as New York’s, were split.

“It’s not surprising that Sheftall and other Savannah Jews were patriots because they had been here for a while and, in general, the longer you had been in the colonies, the more you wanted freedom,” said Prof. Sarna. “It seems the majority of Jews supported the patriots, but it’s hard to know because after the fact, a lot of the Tories left and everybody that stayed seemed to remember having been on the patriot side.”

Mordecai Sheftall, An Early American Jewish Tale Mordecai Sheftall was born in Savannah in 1735. His parents, Benjamin and Perla, were part of the original group of settlers who traveled in 1733 to what would become the Georgia colony.

Benjamin hailed from the Prussian town of Frankfurt am Oder (not to be confused with the better known city of Frankfurt am Main). At some point he made his way to London, where he and Perla married. In Savannah, he was not only one of the founders of its shul, Mickve Israel, but also became one of five leaders of a society to care for widows and orphans, and was also a member of the settlement’s masonic lodge.

At a lean time for Jewish life in North America, Mordecai’s bar mitzvah celebration was delayed; the family had to wait for sefarim his father wanted brought from Europe to help his son prepare for the occasion.

As a young man, he, together with his half-brother Levi, acquired significant amounts of land from the trust charged with overseeing the colony. As time went on, his business activities expanded into tanning, ranching and mercantile trade.

In 1761, he married Frances Hart, a member of a prominent Jewish family in the far larger community of Charleston. The couple would go on to have five children: Sheftall, Benjamin, Moses, Perla and Esther.

By the 1770s, Savannah’s Jewish community had grown to 49 people. With Sheftall serving as its leader, they reestablished Mickve Israel, which had been shuttered for some years since its founding. He also opened Georgia’s first Jewish cemetery.

Sheftall was an early member of the Sons of Liberty, and his outspoken support for the patriot cause caught the attention of British authorities on several occasions. Less than a month after the first shots of the Revolution rang out at Lexington and Concord, he was one of five Savannahians who stormed the royal powder magazine and sent its contents to militias fighting in the Boston area.

In the early years of the Revolution, Sheftall served in several positions in the makeshift patriot Georgian government, eventually serving as Deputy Commissary of Issues for Georgia. With limited funds available and charged with the task of supplying Continental troops and militias in the region, he often paid out of his own pocket for purchases of food, clothing and weapons.

As British troops neared Savannah, Frances and the younger Sheftall children fled to Charleston well before Mordecai and Sheftall’s capture.

The tale of Mordecai and Sheftall’s imprisonment and release from the Nancy was not the end of their ordeal. While trying to make their way north, the two were once again captured, this time exiled to the Caribbean island of Antigua. It was not until April 1780 that they were freed, in a prisoner exchange negotiated largely by Mordecai himself.

After Sheftall and Mordecai’s second release, the family reunited and spent the remainder of the war in Philadelphia. There, he attempted to rebuild his businesses and made multiple attempts to petition the Continental Congress for compensation for his expenditures for supplies from earlier in the war. Sheftall also was active in attempts to revive Philadelphia’s shul, also called Mickve Israel.

Following the conclusion of the war, the Sheftalls returned to Savannah, where he once again built up his mercantile trade and held a number of government positions. He led the efforts to rebuild the town’s Jewish community, serving as its leader until his death in 1789.

For more than a century, the Sheftall family would remain a prominent part of communal life in Savannah and in other areas of the South.

The Colonial Jews of Savannah In 1733, a group of Jews living in London petitioned the trustees of what would become the Georgia colony for permission to travel to the Americas under its auspices. Only a year before, James Oglethorpe, Georgia’s founder, had set sail for the New World with plans to establish a colony where the “worthy poor” could improve their lot.

A majority of the trustees rejected the Jews’ request. However, undeterred and without formal authorization, a group of 42 Jews boarded the William and Sarah headed for Georgia. All but three of the Jewish families aboard were Sephardim, some of whom had lived as conversos in Portugal and Spain before making their way to England. Two of the three Ashkenazi families, those of Benjamin Sheftall and Abraham Minis, would form the backbone of Savannah’s Jewish community for more than a century to come.

Despite the trustees’ rejection, Oglethorpe welcomed the Jews with open arms. He had much reason to do so, as the addition of the small group did much to boost the population of the fledgling settlement which, before their arrival, was left with only 120 residents. Second, when the William and Sarah landed, the colony was in the grips of a deadly fever epidemic and its only doctor had died. The arrival of a Jewish physician, Samuel Nunes Ribiero, whose treatment methods proved more effective than those of his predecessor, played no small part in saving Oglethorpe’s experiment.

The Jewish group came with a sefer Torah and a kit to perform bris milah, and began holding minyanim in private homes. “Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel” was formally established in 1735, and a building was rented for its operations. Three years later, a mikveh was built as well. Despite their small numbers, a split occurred between the Sephardic families — who after years of living as crypto-Jews were generally more lax in their observance — and the Ashkenazim, and the two established separate minyanim.

While the Jews enjoyed religious freedom and equality to a much greater degree than what they would have found nearly anywhere else in the world at the time, several ambitious preachers made great efforts to tempt its members to accept Christianity. By all known accounts, these attempts were rebuffed — much to the consternation of the ministers in question — whose once-high opinions of Georgia’s Jews quickly soured.

While many Jews worked as merchants, free to own land, several pursued farming and other professions closed to Jews in much of Europe. Results were varied; while some families prospered, others remained impoverished, with some relocating to larger communities of New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston.

The Jewish community was dramatically affected by the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the spillover of a European conflict that pitted British and Spanish forces against each other in the Americas from 1739 — 1748.

In 1742, when Spanish troops captured St. Simons Island and bore down on the nearby Georgia colony, all of Savannah’s Sephardim fled, fearing the long arm of the Spanish Court of Inquisition. Of the Jews, only the Minises and Sheftalls remained, with intermittently enough people to form minyanim at the Sheftall home.

It was not until 1774 that enough Jews returned to Savannah to re-establish Mickve Israel and even so, the reopening was short-lived. The outbreak of the Revolution dispersed the towns Jews and once again shuttered its congregation.

Following the session of fighting in 1781, Jews began to return to Savannah and once again reestablished Mickve Israel which continued to function according to Spanish-Portuguese minhagim until the late 1860s, when it was transformed into a Reform congregation.

While George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790 claims a prominent place in history, the first presidential letter to a shul was actually sent the previous year to Savannah’s Mickve Israel. In response to a congratulatory note on his election to the presidency from Levi Sheftall on behalf of the community, Washington responded:

“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land — whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation — still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose G-d is [Hashem].”

 

 

Join Us


Stay informed about new historical documents, historical discoveries, and information for the educated collector.

Collect. Be Inspired.