Hamptons Soul: On American Independence

Father Constantine Lazarakis of the Greek Orthodox Congregation and Rabbi Josh Franklin of the Hamptons Jewish Center offer a spiritual look at American independence.

Rabbi Josh Franklin

Shortly after George Washington’s inauguration as President of the United States (April 30, 1789), a small synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island called Yeshuat Israel (now known as the Touro Synagogue) hosted the new president during a public address on August 17. 1790:

“Deprived as we have hitherto been of the priceless rights of free citizens, we now have with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty who disposes of all events, here is a government, erected by the majesty of the people – a government, which to bigotry gives nothing to punish, to persecution no help – but generously grants to all freedom of conscience and the immunities of citizenship: – to regard everyone, of whatever nation, tongue or tongue, as parties equals of the great governmental machine.

Jews had rarely enjoyed the freedoms of being an emancipated people in any country in which they resided. Religious freedom was not even guaranteed to Jews by the nascent United States yet, as it would take the states another year to ratify the Bill of Rights in 1791. Yet 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 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 congratulate themselves on having given to mankind examples of a broad and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All also possess freedom of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For fortunately the government of the United States, which grants no sanction to sectarianism, to persecution no assistance, only demands that those who live under its protection lower themselves into good citizens, by giving it their effective support on all occasions. … May the children of the stock of Abraham, who inhabit this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone will sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there will be no one to frighten him. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness on our paths, and make us all useful here in our various vocations, and in his time and in his way, eternally happy.

Although the Jewish community was small when our country was founded, Jews from around the world would come to flee persecution in the years that followed, finding safety and freedom to practice their religion in the United States. Despite our country’s many flaws, I celebrate America’s independence with immense gratitude and pride.

Father Constantin Lazarakis

Two hundred and forty-six years. Wow! It’s long. And as fire engines, scout troops, veterans groups and marching bands marched down Main Street in Southampton on this 4th of July, I realized that among many other freedoms, citizens and residents of states United States enjoyed the freedom to practice the religion of their choice for two hundred and forty-six years. A long moment.

Sadly, it’s been long enough that many of us now take our freedoms for granted. I frequently try to remind myself of two facts: 1. Not so long ago, members of my own family risked their lives to exercise their faith. While visiting the village where my father was born, I was shown a secret church, hidden within the walls of an old barn, where Christians worshiped under Ottoman occupation. And 2. Many today, in parts of the world where I have never been, continue to put themselves at risk to perform simple acts of religious devotion. Many sources mention more than fifty countries today where it is illegal to be a Christian or even to own a copy of the Bible.

Today in America our churches and synagogues are open and we are free to pray, nurture our children, and participate in public life from our respective spiritual perspectives. Yet fewer Americans participate meaningfully in religious life today than ever before. Perhaps, as we celebrate American independence and individual freedoms, we should also take a serious look at the freedoms we take for granted. The freedoms we have but do not exercise are also at risk of being lost. Generations before us have risked and given their lives to pass on our religious and spiritual traditions, many have come to this country precisely for religious freedom. Let us not freely abandon the spiritual heritage which they have sacrificed so much to entrust to us.

Father Constantine Lazarakis and Rabbi Josh Franklin began co-teaching a course 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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