A letter’s journey, from founding father to religious question
The battle over Washington's letter to a Newport, Rhode Island, congregation rages on.
September 30th, 2011
07:08 AM ET

A letter’s journey, from founding father to religious question

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Standing over the letter, one would never know its unique story. Worth millions at auction, reading it unveils that it stands as a testament to religious freedom in America. But as it stares up, idly sitting there, the stories of “erotic” behavior, twisted ownership and historic encounters are lost on those lucky enough to see it.

The primary spirit of the letter is clear – the United States government will assure religious freedom, giving “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

George Washington wrote those words in a 1790 letter to the the congregation of a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He was hoping to reassure the congregation that the budding government of the United States would allow free expression to all religions. Since then, Jews in America have flourished.

The letter is addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” but it is kept from public view, which hurts and angers those who think private ownership defies the letter’s original sentiment.

George Washington

“The letter starts off to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” said Mordechai Eskovitz, rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. “It was meant for the congregation. It is addressed to the congregation.”

Eskovitz has been the rabbi of Touro for 16 years. He said the almost unanimous sentiment in his congregation is that the spirit of the letter, which he said was intended for the community and not one person, is being dishonored.

“Jews at that time were going through such turmoil and finally they found a safe haven in the United States,” said Eskovitz. “This letter, and its sentiment, is something too valuable for an individual. It is for everyone.”

Washington signed the letter on the back. His signature gives it monetary value, but his words give the letter even more value, experts say.

For the last nine years, people have been unable to see the letter. It sits in a sterile Maryland office park a few hundred feet from FedEx Field. It is in climate-controlled, protective storage. However, for those who make an appointment, it is presented on a mahogany table, devoid of protective casing.

From a hallway adorned with the storage facility's logo, workers can be seen at their computers, almost oblivious to the document in the small conference room. Though there are gadgets on desks that you wouldn’t see in most offices - a seismograph, for example - an unaware observer could mistake this place for another run of the mill office.

But this office holds documents behind lock and key that libraries and museums would love to display.

How did the letter travel from George Washington’s pen to this suburban Washington office building? The journey's twists and turns highlight a community's resolve to hold on to the letter's sentiment, if not the letter itself.

From Washington to Seixas

Moses Seixas, who was president of Touro Synagogue when Washington visited Newport after the Constitution was ratified, sparked Washington's letter. The oldest synagogue in the United States, Touro was built in 1763.

Mary Thompson, the research historian at Mount Vernon, said when Washington became president, he tried to visit every state. During his visit to Rhode Island, Washington came to Touro and was read a letter from Seixas. After he returned home, the president sent his reply.

The fact that Washington visited Rhode Island was a big deal in its own right. The fact that he visited Touro to this day astounds worshipers in Newport.

“It is a sign of how important the Jews were that they were able to meet the president,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history.

According to Sarna, the Jewish community in Newport was slowly dwindling at the time, losing residents to larger cities like New York and Boston. “Because the community was so small, apparently the letter (from Washington) was actually held in the Seixas family after the visit,” Sarna said.

The situation became so grim for Touro that in the early 19th century, the synagogue was forced to close. In an ironic twist, after losing people to bigger cities, Touro sent some of its scrolls and other valuables to its mother synagogue, Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York.

The letter, however, was not sent to Shearith Israel.

“You would have thought they got the letter,” Sarna said. “The letter was many times reprinted, people at the time knew it was a significant letter.”

The closure of Touro leaves a gap in the path of Washington’s letter. Touro reopened in the late 19th century, but the letter did not surface at the synagogue.

It wasn't until the early 20th century, when a squat Jewish philanthropist began publicizing his ownership of the letter, that the trail picked back up.

From Newport to New York

Howard Rubenstein had just opened a small PR office on Court Street in New York when he was invited to meet Morris Morgenstern. Morgenstern was a public person in need of a publicist and he hoped Rubenstein would fill the job.

“I went to his office and he was a diminutive person, probably 5-2 or 5-3, very short and very lively. Tremendous energy,” said Rubenstein.

At their first meeting, Morgenstern brought up a letter he had purchased, a letter signed by George Washington and addressed to the Hebrew congregation of Newport.

Rubenstein doesn't know how Morgenstern came upon the letter, but according to The Jewish Daily Forward and a 1951 New York Amsterdam News article, Morgenstern acquired the letter in 1949. From who and at what price is unknown.

Using the letter, Rubenstein devised a way for Morgenstern to increase his philanthropic giving. The duo turned viewing the letter into an honor given to prominent people who Morgenstern would get to meet. Morgenstern also would give the viewers of the letter $5,000, a large sum of money at the time, for the charity of the person's choice.

The plan worked.

Morgenstern and the letter were able to meet former President Herbert Hoover, former President Harry Truman and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, as well as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “The only thing I asked these people was when you greet Morris, indicate that you have read the letter and you were delighted to see it,” Rubenstein said.

Morris Morgenstern, center, showed a number of notable people his prized letter, including then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. Howard Rubenstein is at right.

According to Rubenstein, Harry Truman even hugged Morgenstern when they met and said, “I have heard all about your letter and am so excited to see it.”

After the duo stopped publicizing the letter, Rubenstein lost touch with Morgenstern. Rubenstein said he looks back on those days fondly.

“It was a very exciting time for Morris and for the country, because the publicity that it generated about a country opposed to bigotry was very important,” said Rubenstein. “I thought I was doing an important thing in those days.”

Morgenstern also believed the letter he owned was important. According to Rubenstein, Morgenstern cherished the letter so much, he would sleep with the framed letter under his bed at night and would take it almost anywhere he went. Rubenstein called the relationship “treasured.”

In 1957, Morgenstern loaned the letter to B’nai B’rith International, according to Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of the organization.

Why Morgenstern made the loan is unknown. He died in 1969.

New York to suburban Maryland

Mariaschin said former B’nai B’rith’s president Phillip Klutznick secured the loan for the organization's museum in Washington. Klutznick was a well-known Jewish leader and Jimmy Carter’s secretary of commerce. Mariaschin says it was that relationship that cemented the loan.

When CNN contacted the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, Paul Goodnough, the foundation's accountant, said he didn't think this “very private family” would like to talk about the letter.

“If they reach out to you, they want to talk. If they don’t, it is a no comment,” Goodnough said.

The Morgenstern Foundation did not contact CNN.

B’nai B’rith displayed the letter from 1957 to 2002 in its Washington museum, Mariaschin said. The organization downsized in 2002, moving to a smaller office on K Street, an office with no street level location for a museum. Though the organization maintains a reservations-only gallery in its current space, the letter’s unique storage needs were too much for an office environment, so B’nai B’rith contracted Artex, the warehouse in suburban Maryland, to store the letter.

“We are in active discussion now with several institutions about partnering in terms of the display of this very nice collection that the Klutznick museum has,” said Mariaschin.

Since the letter went into storage in 2002, a number of prominent libraries and museums have asked to display it for B’nai B’rith and the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

Among them was the Library of Congress, which asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Jennifer Gavin, director of communications at the Library of Congress, said the letter was requested but not obtained.

“It’s not unusual for institutions like the library to reach out to owners of rare documents for such purposes and find that, for a variety of reasons, the loan can’t be accomplished,” said Gavin.

Sarna helped advise the Library of Congress’ celebration of Jewish life. He said the people he worked with were astonished by the rejection.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” Sarna said. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

This part of the letter's history distresses Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward. The unwillingness to display the letter, she says, hides not only a critical piece of Jewish American history, but also of American history in general.

"We have flourished in America and it is largely because we have been allowed to," said Eisner. "That spirit of tolerances and acceptances was expressed so beautifully by Washington in that letter."

But where is the letter's rightful home?

Bernard Bell has become disillusioned with Touro Synagogue over the years. Twenty-five years ago, he began a scholarship program at Brown University in honor of the synagogue. Before that, he was a member.

Bell is outspoken, and without much prodding he will bluntly tell anyone who listens that he believes the Morris Morgenstern Foundation does not rightfully own the letter.

“The possession of the letter was in the hands of the congregation and I don’t believe at the time that it was sold that anyone had the right to sell it,” Bell said.

Bell said the majority of Newport Jews, especially those who have been around for quite awhile, agree with him. He said the problem is, “There is nobody in the congregation that I am aware of that has the guts to go after that letter.”

To Bell, the power of the letter is not just its historical significance, but also its monetary value.“It is the most valuable piece of work outside of the synagogue that we have. No one had the right to sell it and it shouldn't sit in the warehouse,” Bell said.

The letter has not been valued lately, but Dana Linett, a colonial documents expert, said the letter could be worth millions.

“I would think that the Touro is a million-dollar or better, it might bring multiple millions, depending on the condition and how it reads,” Linett said.

Linett said he has seen documents like the Washington letter have what he called a “runaway sale.” When a group so identifies with the document, the sale at auction could defy actual valuation, he said. The symbolic power of the letter could mean more than money. In cases like this, Linett said he has seen documents once valued at $1.5 million shoot up to $8 million in a matter of minutes at auction.

“It is a national treasure. That is what this letter is in its truest sense,” Linett said.

Linett is not alone in valuing the letter's sentiment. John L. Loeb Jr. has put his money behind that opinion.

Loeb spent about $12 million to found the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, which opened in 2009. Since first reading the letter, Loeb said, “I have been deeply interested that everyone gets to know it. It is one of the great letters about religious freedom that has ever been written and perhaps the earliest by a head of state.” The institute, near Touro in Newport, serves that purpose by displaying a copy of the letter.

Newport is home to the Touro Synagogue, the Loeb Touro Visitors Center and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.

Loeb speaks excitedly about the letter’s sentiment. However, Loeb, a former ambassador to Denmark who has committed most of his philanthropic life to the letter, seems reflective when he talks about displaying only a reproduction.

Loeb said though he would like to house the original letter, it is the sentiment that is more important. It is the sentiment, not the physical letter, that moved him to build the institute.

“To me, the uniqueness of America is the acceptance of everybody,” Loeb said. “That is what made America possible. And this letter symbolizes what America is all about.”

Read George Washington's letter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Church and state • Judaism

soundoff (594 Responses)
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    June 3, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  6. evensteven

    "Can't we just all get along?"

    The only problem I see Atheists having with Christians and Christians having with Atheists is when one tries to impose their belief on the other through insult and belittlement . . . this creates a chain reaction of negativity and intolerance . . .

    May 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • A.D.DiSorda

      "Belief without fact" leaves two undefined terms and one undefined relationship. First of all, we believe many things without out "facts" supporting them. Secondly, what is a fact? Something based on science or a consensus of opinion? Thirdly, why do we demand supporting facts only for beliefs we don't agree with?

      May 25, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • Jamie

      @A.D.DiSorda –

      "Thirdly, why do we demand supporting facts only for beliefs we don't agree with?"

      That is the beauty of science. We demand supporting evidence without regard to someone's "beliefs" and we open it up for scrutiny.

      If you don't care about evidence to determine the origins of our universe how can you know which religion has it right, or if any have it right at all?

      May 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • 13monkees

      I agree that the argument sometimes drifts into name-calling and belittlement. However, there has never been a time when atheists have tried to force their "beliefs" on everyone. Atheists are tired of having Christianity forced on us and so we are finally speaking up for our rights and to keep religion out places it should not be. Not once have we ever said someone can't worship their god. Christians think it should be okay to have government endorsement of prayers and religions. Christians think it's okay to force their morality on everyone else based upon their beliefs. The only problem there is between Christians and Atheists is that Atheists are tired of letting Christians do what they want.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Tom

    Religions and god are one of the scourge's of mankind, not to mention mankind itself.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Mike

      You must live a horrible life. I feel sorry for you

      May 24, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Jamie

      @Mike – Actually, I very much enjoy living without religion.

      I don't cheat on my wife because I love her (not because I'm worried about hell).

      I base whether I'm a moral person as a reflection on the type of a societal I want to live in.

      I don't discriminate and hate because a "good book" tells me to.

      Every Sunday morning, instead of spending time listening to someone tell me more fairy tales, I spend more quality time with my family.

      Instead of giving to religions that build bigger churches, I donate to charities with a much higher percent that actually goes to helping the needy.

      Please don't judge someone's ability to love life and be a good person because they don't have the exact same views you do.

      May 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Catholic Clarity

      I really like most of what you said, Jamie. The values you possess are actually quite similar to the values you find in most religions. This is because God gave us these rules...these guidelines...not so much with the threat of hell...more for the threat of the hell it brings to live a different kind of life. We have so much common ground! My greatest regret for the religion of my childhood is that the "rules" (commandments, etc.) were not explained. They were just put out there for me to memorize. When you look at them closely, they protect us and those we love from pain and suffering.

      These churches we build are for the glory of God and refuge of His people. Your calling to donate to other worthwhile charities is so commendable. Some donate time and talents as well. We are each called to play our unique parts in this world. There was almost no negativity in your words and you admonished those who judge which is right to do.

      We do differ, of course. My Sunday includes time with a more extended family. My faith family. My God is Father of all and His people are my brothers and sisters. We are there for each other. We care for each other and support one another. There are no fairy tales there. My faith is so real...so relevant. I hope some day you can at least understand...and maybe even find that for yourself. At the very least, I hope you can resist the judgmental use of "fairy tales" for those of us who cherish our beliefs...our faith...the faith of generations before us and the faith of our children. Then we can actually talk and continue to make this nation great.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Catholic Clarity

      Oh, and by the way...in Mike's defense...he feels sorry for Tom, the intolerant man who feels it is appropriate to call our beautiful faith a scourge. It's okay. Mike wants the same lack of judgement you want! :o)

      June 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm |

    As a Human I CHOOSE to LOVE my fellow Humans.

    January 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  9. Lester

    It is too bad that money and ownership are obviously preventing this from being displayed at the National Archives or the Library of Congress where it belongs.

    January 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  10. Salahuddin

    Great article at theruggedgent(dot)com about religion and the founding fathers called The Founding Fathers.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  11. _________________

    Atheism has become a religion of bigotry, intolerance and hatred.

    January 2, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • The Other Guy

      That's exactly what religion is, pal

      January 7, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • sfsocla

      Pot meet kettle

      May 24, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Catholic Clarity

      Not even close! Christianity (along with other religions – that just happens to be the one of which I am most informed) has nothing to do with bigotry, intolerance, or hatred. Despite the MANY poor leaders and parts of history not handled well at all, the Catholic Church has fought bigotry, intolerance, and hatred in every generation! Don't get me wrong. Some (many?) Christians claim this but do not live what they should. The religion itself...its true teachings that remain unchained for millenia, are about love, tolerance, and justice.

      June 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  12. spectator

    ..... and more Christians convert to Islam; this is a fact. What shall we do about it. Wake up people, muslims don't even preach it, and perform missions, and us Christians still convert to islam. go figure..

    January 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • _________________

      That's the biggest load of crap since hope and change.

      January 2, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • 13monkees

      What on earth does this have to do with the article? While I would concede that Islam currently is more dangerous than Christianity, Christianity is still bigoted and intolerant for the most part.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  13. jbs

    We athiests are truely intelligent that we accept, that others can believe "stupid" different things...Athiests are regular people that believe in fact and scientific proof... Amen!

    January 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  14. gerald

    Obama Welcomes in the New Year by Quietly Signing Bill Allowing Indefinite Detention Of Americans...

    January 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  15. Greg Powell

    Please read http://www.FindingLifeInJesus.com

    January 1, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  16. Greg Powell

    May you and I both have our best year ever of abiding in Jesus, being filled by the Holy Spirit, and resting in Abba's arms. May we love with God's love and patience, battle with God's power and courage, and walk in His ways and will. Since His desire is that every single human on earth be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth, may we pray and work to that end, trusting in His power, crying out for His grace and mercy. May we be more conformed to His moral likeness and less conformed to the world system than ever. May we bring more pleasure to God, more cause for celebration to the holy angels, and more frustration to the demons than ever. May this be our best year ever because God got so much glory from our broken, humbled, devoted, obedient lives; and because so many hurting, screwed up, sinful image-bearers experienced unmerited, non-judgmental, affectionate, and sacrificially practical love when they let us into their lives; and because we were more zealously focused than ever on the expansion of the Kingdom of Jesus, one heart at a time... starting with our own.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Andy Anderson

      Matthew 6:5-8

      Might be a good idea to put away your public sanctimony and pick up your Bible instead.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Danny V

      I Love ABBA...are they still together?....Oh the 80's were so much fun..or was that the 70's..90's....anyhooo...

      January 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Maybe you need to go back to Sunday school. ABBA was a great Swedish musical group. It also was an ancient appellation, such as "hail". "Abba father", means "greetings father". Abba is not a proper name. As usual you religionists know nothing about your own cults. 😈

      May 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      So, let' see what's wrong with this drivel.

      "May you and I both have our best year ever of abiding in Jesus, being filled by the Holy Spirit, and resting in Abba's arms."

      -- If that was a prayer, it's been proven they don't work. If god has a plan, no need to say one. If she is omniscient, she knows what she's gonna do, and can't change it, (thus making her NOT omnipotent).

      If god is making plans, and loving things, that means she exists in the dimensions of spacetime, and can't be their creator.

      If god has any power, how come 10,000,000 Africans starved last Summer ?

      Salvation is not a Biblical concept that Jesus ever talked about. Paul started that crap. If you can "bring" anything to your god, she's mot "perfect".

      Angels and demons are mythogogical beings, cooked up in the Ancient Near East, and debunked.
      "Sin" was unknown, until Paul cooked up "salvation".

      The "kingdom" of Jesus was a POLITICAL one, and THAT'S how they understood it. Have you never read Acts ? "Lord wilt thou at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel" ?

      Sheesh. Why do atheists have to teach Bible Study ?

      May 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  17. Shan

    America is a Christian country.... get over it!

    December 30, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • John John

      Actually it is not a Christian country. It is a secular country. If you want a religious country I suggest you move to the wonderful, cheerful country of Iran.
      Please keep your imaginary giant in the sky out of my government.

      December 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • frontgate

      It is not a christian country, dude.
      btw, do you tbow?

      December 31, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • JCBinTN

      Shan–You make a perplexing (to put it mildly) statement, particularly given the subject of this article and the text of Washington;'s letter. By the way, did you even bother to read the letter or were you not able to do so with your head so firmly planted in the sand?

      January 14, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      1797. Treat with Tripoli. Written by Washington, signed by Adams, ratified by unanimous consent.
      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

      So sad, too bad. Wrong again.

      May 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      oops. Treat = Treaty

      May 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • 13monkees

      It is a country filled with a majority of Christians, but it's government is secular. Get over it!

      May 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  18. James Olsen

    It amazes me that Jews want freedom of religion until someone uses theirs to criticize them

    December 30, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  19. lt

    Its amazing to me that only athiests are smart and any one who does believe in God is stupid – really isn't that argument getting old. If your truely intelligent then accept that others can believe different then you and thats ok.

    December 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • John John

      There are a lot of intelligent Christians, but they are for the most part quite gullible. Belief without fact is pretty much a sign of a person without the desire to improve themselves. Basically, 95% of the bible has been proven as fiction, but Christians do not want to hear that, or see the data. Memorizing scriptures somehow makes them feel better about themselves not understanding science or history so it works for them. I won't call them stupid, but I certainly don't consider them intellectually superior.

      December 30, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "Its amazing to me that only athiests are smart and any one who does believe in God is stupid – really isn't that argument getting old. If your truely intelligent then accept that others can believe different then you and thats ok."


      You can hold whatever beliefs you want, but if you post them on a public forum you should expect some discussion.

      December 30, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      "believe differently", (speaking of stupid).

      May 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • 13monkees

      I'm just glad you acknowledge that only Atheists are intelligent. Actually, it's not the Christian we necessarily think is stupid. It's only their belief in a supernatural old-dude in the sky. Many smart people have irrational beliefs.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.