By: Ch, Capt Yosef Zarnighian, USAFR
Before the Jewish people went out to defend themselves against the Midianites, the Biblical prophet Gideon would have his troops proclaim: “For G-d, and for Gideon!” (Judges 7:18). Our rabbis teach that this proclamation was not meant to idolize Gideon, but rather to emphasize that through his sacrifice in service of protecting our Torah and the Jewish people, G-d would lead the Jews to victory.
Many of us are familiar with the US Army Chaplain Corps motto: Pro Deo et Patria—“for G-d and Country.” While we have different experiences that offer us all a unique understanding of serving G-d and our country, I wish to share experiences from my services as a reserve chaplain in the USAF, and as the rabbi of the historic Congregation Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, known as the Synagogue of the American Revolution.
The year was 1740. During this time, Spanish-Portuguese Jews in America—who were new immigrants from Amsterdam, London, and Brazil—would lay the foundation for American Jewish life to begin. Nathan Levy, a member of Mikveh Israel, would petition Thomas Penn, son of William Penn, for one of the first Jewish cemeteries in North America.
During British rule, Mr. Levy hosted minyanim in his home until Mikveh Israel received its first minister (the term used back then for rabbi). The first minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas, was hired in 1780, and the congregation’s first building was built in 1782. This congregation continues to perpetuate its influence to this day, where I and others still pray and read the Torah from the same table that was used by Rabbi Seixas.
In 1783, Rabbi Seixas also headed a committee to protest the Pennsylvania Assembly’s requirement for each of its members to profess that both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were divinely inspired. This requirement deprived Jews of the right to be representatives in their own government. While their protest was not accepted by the Assembly, it eventually influenced the United States to adopt the No Religious Test Clause in its Constitution, which bars mandating elected officials from making religious oaths for holding office.
You may be wondering: Aside from its rich historical roots, what is so special about this synagogue compared to any other synagogue in the 21st century? I typically reply to this query that Mikveh Israel is unique in three primary ways: 1.Tradition, 2. Its members, and 3. Its impact on the United States.
Firstly, its tradition: While Jews across the world all share the same Torah, Talmud, and basic framework of Jewish law, we are all blessed to have various styles, melodies, and nuances in our tefillah. Most of us are probably familiar with the most widely used traditional liturgies, those known as Ashkenaz, Sefard, Ari, and Edot Hamizrach, but most are not familiar with the Spanish-Portuguese version of the prayers. In fact, it was none other than Isaac Leeser, former Minister of Mikveh Israel, who published the first Spanish-Portuguese and Ashkenazi siddurim in the US in 1837, with an American English translation alongside the Hebrew.
Much like all historical Jewish traditions, our synagogue’s prayer is melodic and from the soul, but it is distinct from that of Sephardic Jews of the East. While we are also Sephardic Jews, our customs in the synagogue are a product of layers of tradition from medieval Spain and Portugal, and later from London, Amsterdam, and even from Italy. In fact, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and Shearith Israel in New York are the only two remaining synagogues in the United States that continue to preserve these customs. It is, of course, difficult to describe the melodies to others, which is why the public is always invited to experience our traditions in person throughout the year.
Secondly, our members: Mikveh Israel’s members have taught me, quite simply, what it means to be a Jew. Most synagogues in the US are structured along the lines of nusach, or liturgical style based on a geographic root. For example: Ashkenazim tend to pray in Ashkenazi synagogues, and Sephardim tend to pray in Sephardic synagogues. However, Mikveh Israel’s membership is comprised of Jews from all walks of life. We have Jews of German, Polish, Hungarian, Dutch, and English descent, as well as Jews with Syrian, Yemenite, Persian, and Moroccan backgrounds.
Our Senior Rabbi Albert Gabbai, who has been Mikveh Israel’s minister for 34 years, often reminds me that he represents Mikveh Israel’s mosaic of Jews with his own family history. His father was Iraqi, his mother was from Livorno, and they raised him in the French-speaking community of Cairo, Egypt. As for me, both of my parents came to this country from Iran in 1979. Mikveh Israel teaches that ethnicity doesn’t define us: The moment a newcomer enters our synagogue, they are treated as a Jew of equal standing to any other Jew. This principle also holds true regarding levels of observance. A person can be a scholar or someone who is only starting to learn how to read Hebrew, but these differences do not divide us. Despite these differences, our synagogue’s values of Torah observance and maintaining tradition are respected by all within the synagogue.
Thirdly, its impacts on the US: Mikveh Israel’s impact on the US has been prolific and longstanding. While some of these examples were already listed, I am reminded of the impact of one of Mikveh Israel’s former members, Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862). Commodore Levy not only served in the US Navy with the rank of rear admiral (lower half) in today’s terms, but he is most well known as being the catalyst for the abolishment of flogging in the US Navy. He was a man who successfully appealed his demotion and discharge from the Navy for standing up against antisemitic action which he faced during his time in service. Despite being court-martialed six times, Commodore Levy was reinstated and in 1850, Congress signed his anti-flogging directives into law. Those of us in uniform know what it means to impact the lives of our service members very well.
In conclusion, these lessons from serving Mikveh Israel have taught me how to protect the religious liberties of our service members, counsel them in their times of need, and admire our different upbringings for the sake of uniting for the sake of a common mission. I hope and pray that we all strive toward these goals and make a kiddush Hashem in our respective services for many more years to come.
Originally published in the Pesach 5783 Jewish-American Warrior magazine