At George Washington’s 1789 inauguration, a rabbi stood by on the steps of New York’s Federal Hall. Exactly 225 years later, that rabbi’s great-great-great-grandson will return to those same steps to commemorate the event.
Donald Green, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, will attend the National Park Service’s April 30 re-creation of the swearing-in. The very Bible Washington used, later borrowed for the inaugurations of presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, will be used.
Green, 81 also will moderate a panel he initiated, made up of clergy from the various faiths represented at Washington’s inauguration still active in New York today. They will discuss religious freedom in America.
Green knows his family tree. It stretches back to Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal. It includes Moses Seixas of Newport, R.I., whose exchange of letters with the first president in 1790 count among the foundational works of American religious tolerance.
It also includes Moses’ brother and Green’s ancestor of direct lineage, Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816), who stood with Washington on inauguration day.
“The Jewish faith and the rabbi were held in enough esteem to be invited along with Episcopalians,” Green says.
The Jewish Virtual Library stresses that Seixas was officially a hazzan and not a rabbi, as the United States didn’t get its first ordained rabbi from Europe until the mid-19th century. But he was known as a rabbi and was religious leader of prominence who served as a model for ensuing American rabbis.
His synagogue, Shearith Israel, was founded in New York City in 1654, during a decade in which the city had fewer than 300 Jews, according to the library. Shearith Israel is New York’s oldest religious institution still in operation, and descendants of the original founders are still in leadership positions there.
As for Gershom’s brother, Moses, who served at Newport’s Touro Synagogue, his written exchange with Washington still resonates.
When Washington visited Newport in August 1790, Moses Seixas praised his newly minted nation which “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Washington’s famous reply borrowed Moses Seixas’ exact wording: “… 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.” It was signed “G. Washington.”
“This letter,” Green says, “is the only one that went in-depth about rights of citizens for all and religious freedom.”
Green, a former government economist with several U.S. administrations, knew a bit of the family lore growing up, but did not become seriously interested until he and his wife added their names into the family Bible when they married in 1959. Dating back to 1849, the Bible contained all family births, marriages and deaths, with Gershom Seixas’ daughter the first entry.
His interest deepened following a 1989 Jewish Bulletin article about artist Jane Brenner, whose specialty was creating illustrated family trees. The family commissioned one, and that sent Green into deeper genealogical research.
“My mother would refer to the chart,” Green says of his late mother, Edith Green. “She would say it’s all in the chart.”
That illustrated family tree reveals one Jewish family’s long sojourn across Europe and America. One forebear went on to co-found the New York Stock Exchange. Another became a trustee of Columbia University.
Green’s great-grandfather planted roots in the Golden State, settling in San Francisco in 1854. Since that time, the family has been members of Congregation Emanu-El, founded in 1850.
Green says he is looking forward to the event at Federal Hall, which was built in 1700 and later served as the first capitol building of the United States. Located in what is now Wall Street, the hall is now a museum and memorial run by the National Park Service.
Accompanying Green will be his Israeli grandson, now a student at the Hebrew University law school in Israel. That means a lot, he says.
“There will be eight generations represented,” Green says, referring to Gershom Seixas and his descendants. “We’ve carried on.”