Columbia Trustee, Jewish Leader and Patriot of the American Revolution

February 17, 2017

The Columbia University Seixas Medal.

Dear Alma,

Who is the person for whom the Seixas Award, given by Columbia/Barnard Hillel, is named?

—Religion Researcher

 

Dear Religion Researcher,

The award is named for Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first Jewish trustee of Columbia College, who served from 1787 until 1815. A patriot during the Revolutionary War, Seixas helped reestablish the College after the war and was the only Jewish trustee until 1928, when Benjamin Cardozo (CC 1889), who later attended the Law School, joined the board.

Born in New York City in 1745, Seixas undertook his own deep study of Hebrew texts because there were no rabbinical seminaries in the colonies. At the age of 23, he became spiritual leader of the oldest Jewish congregation in North America and the city’s only synagogue, Shearith Israel, which was founded in 1654. (The congregation met in rented rooms until 1730, when it consecreated its first synagogue on what is now called South William Street; it is currently located on West 70th Street.) 

The Shearith Israel congregation was the center of cultural life for the city’s tight-knit Jewish community, which at the time numbered fewer than 300 people. As its religious leader he developed friendships with the ministers of other denominations, particularly the Episcopal clergy, many of whom visited the synagogue and invited Seixas to address their congregations.

In 1776, when the British occupied New York City during the Revolutionary War, Seixas chose to close the synagogue and leave the city rather than give allegiance to King George III. He packed up prayer books and Torah scrolls and moved first to Connecticut and then to Philadelphia, where he led Congregation Mikveh Israel. At its dedication, he invoked God’s blessing upon “the members of these states in Congress assembled and on His Excellency George Washington, commander general of these Colonies.” Returning to New York in 1784, Seixas reopened Shearith Israel and, five years later, he and other religious leaders participated in the nation's first inauguration.

Columbia/Barnard Hillel, The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life created the Seixas Award in 2001, bestowing it annually upon “those who have made outstanding contributions to Jewish life at Columbia University and Barnard College.” The medal, which bears Seixas’ likeness, is a copy of an early 19th-century portrait medal acquired by the University in 1933.

Last year the award was given to Ronald O. Perelman at a ceremony in Low Rotunda in recognition of his donation to support construction of Columbia Business School’s new facilities on the Manhattanville campus. One of the school’s two new buildings will be named for him.

Previous honorees have included the author Herman Wouk (CC’34), former Barnard President Judith Shapiro (GSAS’72), former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (CC’85), and the former Columbia University presidents Michael I. Sovern (CC’53, Law’55) and George E. Rupp. The 2017 awardee will be recognized at a dinner on May 10.

When Seixas died in 1816, a memorial tablet erected by his congregation described him as “the Patriot Jewish minister of the American Revolution.”

—By Gary Shapiro

Send your questions for Alma’s Owl to curecord@columbia.edu.