Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Shearith Israel Congregation and its aid to the Irish People

I came across the news of this story this past weekend in both the New York Times and the Irish Independent and realized that it tied into a prior post of mine. The Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845-1852 and caused the deaths of approximately 1 million people and caused mass emigration from Ireland mainly to the United States. Bearing similarities to the fund raising efforts to help those in need in today's places of crisis, the victims of the Irish Potato Famine were aided by religious and humanitarian groups worldwide. One such religious group here in New York City reached out and aided the Irish. That group was the congregation of Shearith Israel. How does the Shearith Israel congregation fit into one of my prior posts? Read on.

The foundations for the Shearith Israel Congregation was laid by the 23 Jewish refugees who came to New Amsterdam from New Holland in 1654 (Click here to access the prior post detailing struggle of these original 23 refugees). By 1847, the congregation was located on Crosby Street between Broome and Spring Streets in today's SOHO section of New York City (Its current location is at 8 West 70th Street). As history had recorded it, the fates of the congregation of Shearith Israel and the Irish were forever linked on March 8, 1847.

Leading the charge to help those in need across the Atlantic was the minister of the congregation Jacques Judah Lyons (1813-1877). Born in Surinam, Dutch Guiana on August 25, 1813, Lyons' family emigrated to Philadelphia and made his way to New York City where he was elected the minister of the congregation of Shearith Israel in 1839 serving as said minister for 38 years until his death in 1877. Lyons' saw the need to aid the victims of the terrible famine in Ireland and he called upon his congregation to provide necessary aid. Here is part of his speech to the congregation on March 8, 1847:

Yet sadness and gloom pervade the land. A nation is in distress, a nation is starving. Numbers of our fellow-creatures have perished, dreadfully, miserably perished from hunger and starvation. Millions are threatened with the same horrid fate, the same dire calamity. The aged and the young, the strong and the feeble alike are prostrated. The heart of civilization is touched by the distress and wo of the sufferers. Relief, and if not relief at least alleviation, is the first sentiment to which utterance is given, and in obedience to that sentiment are we, my brethren, assembled this evening. When information was received in our country that great distress existed in unhappy Ireland, that her inhabitants, her peasantry and her labourers were suffering from the failure of the potato crop, that supplies must be drawn from this and other countries, the benefits we were to derive from such a state of affairs was the paramount consideration. That cases of individual suffering would ensue was admitted.—That the energies and capacities of the people would surmount their difficulties was confidently predicted, and it was not till the reality was made evident to us, not until we were absolutely horrified and heart-sickened by the accounts of the distress that measures were taken to prevent if possible the further ravages of the visitation. Our fellow-citizens have come forward with promptitude and generosity; contributions have poured in from all classes, from all sects. Aid and assistance to unhappy Ireland—raiment, food and life itself to her destitute people are now invoked at your hands. Each of you, I know, acknowledges the necessity of action, each feels that a state of affairs there exists, which it is the duty of society to change and improve. But while there is no diversity of opinion on these points, there is a great diversity of opinion as to what we should do in the premises. We are told that we have a large number of our own poor and destitute to take care of, that the charity which we dispense should be bestowed in this quarter, that the peculiar position of ourselves and our co-religionists demands it at our hands, that justice is a higher virtue than generosity, that self-preservation is a law and principle of our nature. Examine these objections for yourselves. Reflect upon them seriously and conscientiously; then ask yourselves whether they be forcible and true, or whether they are not in fact excuses which the lips utter, while they are rejected by the heart.—Ask yourselves if the contribution which this day you are requested to make will diminish in the smallest degree the other calls which you admit are imperative and binding; and if the responses be those which I anticipate, our meeting for this purpose will not have been in vain. It is true that there is but one connecting link between us and the sufferers; that while most others know only apolitical and geographical separation from them, we alone realize that formidable and eternal one which the hand of man made not. But thanks to the Lord that connecting link is strong enough, and long enough to withstand all attempts to make the separa tion complete and irreparable. Prejudice, bigotry, fanaticism with their attendant spirits, ignorance, intolerance and persecution cannot break it. Selfishness, avarice, cruelty in vain assist in the unholy work. Forged as it was, by religion, virtue and charity it is indestructible, it is all-powerful. That link, my brethren, is HUMANITY! Its appeal to the heart surmounts every obstacle. Clime, colour, sect, are barriers which impede not its progress thither.—Reason at its approach deserts its strong places, its impregnable fortresses. Pride from its lofty seat and imperious throne leaps down to welcome its presence. It is lighted on its way by the divine spirit within us, and the halo and glory which accompanied it illumines its biding-place long, long after its departure. It is this which has brought you here to-night, it is this and this only which will produce any result from this assemblage. Nothing that I can say, nothing that the more eloquent gentlemen who are to follow me can say (and I speak this with a full appreciation of their abilities and eloquence) can add one word which will make its action more prompt, its result more satisfactory. Its promptings enforce their own obedience, its commands require neither interpreter or assistant.

I have taken it for granted that you are all well acquainted with the present state of Ireland; that you are fully aware that the pursuit of its population is agriculture; that its land is chiefly owned by large proprietors, few of whom live on their estates; that it possesses no government of its own, and that its wants, its prosperity, its existence, depend upon the caprice of a minister, or the exigencies of a party; that the failure for two successive years of the staple article of food, and the withdrawal from its shores (even in such times) of its productions for the use of its absent landlords, have all tended to that end. I have also omitted all details of the sufferings of the people, though of thrilling interest, and affecting and persuasive for my purpose. Neither shall I dwell upon the position in which we are placed, as the first Israelite Congregation assembled for this purpose; that the eyes of the community are turned upon us, that their attention is directed to us, ought not, cannot, and will not affect us. The ground on which we stand is holy ground. No evil thoughts, no base passions, no worldly considerations here actuate us. The better principles of our nature here exercise their beneficent and ennobling control. Our hearts turned to God and his glory, his goodness, his mercy, direct us to that hath which his laws and his commandments teach us to he the true one. The guide-posts to the path are numerous and distinct; and among the first and foremost placed before our eyes do we behold thee, oh, Charity! We recognise thy beautiful face, beaming with goodness and cheerfulness, and reflecting the joy and the happiness which thy practice brings with it. We neglect not thy precepts, we fail not at thy bidding. I have endeavoured briefly, and I know imperfectly, to express the ideas which have presented themselves to me on this occasion. I have sought to impress them on you, not by texts drawn from our sacred writings; not by arguments based on our creed, our forms, our traditions, or our laws; not by appeals to your sympathies, your passions, or your pride. I have attempted only to to express the ONE simple truth, that the sufferings of our fellow-men, wheresoever and howsoever situated, demand from us alleviation, assistance and relief. Grant it in this case, for it is a pressing one. Grant it, mothers, for mothers once happy and blessed as ye are ask it of you for their own sakes and for the sakes of their suffering babes; they ask it of you by that bond of sympathy which nature has created between ye; they ask it of you with streaming eyes and outstretched hands, to save them from disease and starvation. Grant it, wives: to save a famishing husband, a wife asks it of you, and what stronger claim can she present to you? Grant it, sisters: in a brother’s name, in the name of the poor of Ireland, to contribute your portion towards alleviating the sufferings of the destitute, and to illumine with joy the dreary path of those who are dying of starvation, with no roof, save yon canopy of heaven, to shelter them from the keen blasts of the tempest’s fury, or the pitiless ravings of the midnight storm. With hopes blasted and prospects blighted, they must now battle with the His of life, and contend with that misery which awaits them in their onward struggle.

“Should we not cherish, then, sweet charity,
Peace, and good-will, the bright humanities,
To shed a cheering radiance o’er the gloom,
To arch the glittering rainbow on the cloud,
Lift from the o’er-tasked heart its crushing grief,
Still the wild blasts and smooth the raging waves,
Bid the eye sparkle joyous through its tears,
Drive from the shattered temple of the soul
The fiend misanthropy, restore the shrine
Of faith; and, wreathing it with fresh new flowers,
Let the bright angel Love administer
Again, in gifts of goodness to mankind?”

And for whom do I plead? For Ireland, unhappy Ireland! the birthplace of that Emmet, who stood unrivalled for the splendour of his talents and the brilliancy of his legal attainments ; for the land of that departed martyr, who, in the last moments of existence—ay, when his grave was opening to receive him—promulgated the noblest sentiments of the human heart, in accents soul-stirring and eloquent, in language beautiful and sublime.

As American citizens, are we not under great and lasting obligations, to the people of Ireland? On the bloody field of battle, during our struggles for liberty, were there no Irishmen engaged in the contest? no generous and daring son of the Emerald Isle, that nobly and bravely stepped forward to the rescue? He who fell at Quebec, while leading on your troops, and urging them to victory, drew the first breath of life in Ireland’s persecuted clime; and he, whose tomb has been bedewed with the tears of his mourning countrymen, that illustrious soldier and conquering general, who for two successive terms filled the highest office within your gift, was born of Irish parents. And now, let me ask you if Ireland has no claims upon our sympathy, no demands upon our friendship, for services rendered in the darkest hours of adversity, in our conflict for liberty, in our struggles for equal rights? But, admitting that we act up to the principle that individuals as well as nations are ungrateful, has she then no claims upon us on the broad ground of charity, and of its heavenly attribute, brotherly love?

By the end of the sermon, the congregation combined to collect $200 dollars ($80,000 in today's dollars) to aid in the relief of the victims of the famine. So how is this relevant to today aside from the parallels to today's fundraising for worldwide victims of natural disasters? The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese (who was in the city for a four day tour commemorating the Irish Potato Famine) visited the congregation Shearith Israel this past Sunday May 23, 2010 to give thanks from the people of Ireland to the congregation who so generously gave aid during a dark time in Ireland's history.

For Further Reading:
- Click Here for the New York Times article by Jim Dwyer about the President of Ireland's visit to Congregation Shearith Israel
- Click Here for the Irish Independent article by Caitriona Palmer on President McAleese's visit to Congregation Shearith Israel
- Click here to visit the official webpage for the Congregation Shearith Israel
- Click here for the entire sermon given by Jacques Judah Lyons on March 8, 1847 from the Occident and American Jewish Advocate April 1847
- Click here for the guide to the papers of Jacques Judah Lyons located at American Jewish Historical Society which has a biographical note for Reverend Lyons
- Click Here for a history of the Irish Potato Famine from The History Place