Father Constantine Lazarakis of the Greek Orthodox Congregation, and Jewish Center of the Hamptons Rabbi Josh Franklin offer a spiritual look at American Independence.
Rabbi Josh Franklin
Shortly after George Washington was inaugurated as president of the United States (April 30, 1789), a small synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island called Yeshuat Israel (now known as Touro Synagogue), welcomed the new president in a public address on August 17, 1790:
“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, 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.”
The Jews had rarely enjoyed the freedoms of being an emancipated people in any country in which they resided. Religious freedom was not yet even guaranteed to the Jews by the infant United States, as it would take another year for the states to ratify the Bill of Rights in 1791. Still, the Jewish people dreamed that the United States would become their new promised land, and Washington their new Jerusalem. President Washington responded to the Jews of Newport only a few days later in a finely crafted and affectionate letter, which Jews have always seen as a symbol that Jews could always feel at home here in America:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship . . . . 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. … May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Although the Jewish community was small when our country was founded, Jews from all over the world would come to flee persecution in the years that followed finding safety and a freedom to practice their religion in the United States. Despite our country’s many flaws, I celebrate the independence of the United States with immense gratitude and pride.
Father Constantine Lazarakis
Two hundred forty-six years. Wow! It’s a long time. And as fire trucks, scout troops, veteran groups, and marching bands made their way down Main Street in Southampton on this Fourth of July, I realized that among many other freedoms, the citizens and residents of the United States have enjoyed the freedom to practice the religion of their choice for two hundred forty six years. A long time.
Unfortunately, it is enough time that many of us now take our freedoms for granted. I try to frequently remind myself of two facts: 1. It was not that long ago when members of my own family risked their lives to exercise their faith. Visiting the village where my father was born, I was shown a secret Church, hidden in the walls of an old barn, where Christians would worship under Ottoman occupation. And 2. Many today, in parts of the world to which I have never been, continue to imperil themselves to make simple acts of religious devotion. Many sources site upwards of fifty countries today, where it is illegal to be a Christian or even own a copy of the Bible.
Today, in America, our Churches and Synagogues are open and we are free to worship, educate our children, and participate in public life from our respective spiritual perspectives. Yet, fewer Americans meaningfully participate in religious life today than ever before. Perhaps, as we celebrate American Independence and individual freedoms, we should also take serious stock of the freedoms we take for granted. The Freedoms we have but do not exercise are also in danger of being lost. Generations before us both risked and gave their lives to hand down our religious and spiritual traditions, many came to this country precisely for religious freedom. Let’s not freely give up the spiritual inheritance they sacrificed so much to entrust to us.
Father Constantine Lazarakis and Rabbi Josh Franklin have begun co-teaching a class that’s open to the public this summer, True Love: An Interfaith Exploration of Relational Love. Details are available at jcoh.org/event/true-love.
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