Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Revolutionary in Georgia

Mordecai Sheftall (1737-1797), the son of Benjamin and Perla Sheftall, emigrants from England, was born in Savannah, Georgia. A successful self-made merchant-come-landholder, Mordecai was active in colonial politics. His position on the Parochial Committee (and one-time chairman) made him easily identifiable as an independent minded rebel to any British official. When the hostilities between the British and the colonists eventually turned to war, Sheftall was appointed commissary-general and eventually the “Deputy Commissary of Issues in South Carolina and Georgia.” He was commissioned as a colonel, the highest ranking Jewish officer in America.

Two years into the war, Sheftall was captured by the British. He and his son, Sheftall Sheftall, who served as his assistant, were imprisoned in Antigua. When they were freed in a prisoner exchange, but were unable to return to the British held Savannah, and so resided temporarily in New York and then Philadelphia.

Like other Jews in the era of the American Revolution, Sheftall helped the Continental Army financially as well as through his military efforts. He not only made loans to the authorities, but paid for the upkeep of the soldiers under his command and invested in Georgia bonds and notes. Although he formally petitioned both the State of Georgia and the Continental Congress, the money owed him was never repaid...nor was he able to recover the property he lost when it was seized by British troops.

Mordecai Sheftall was more than a Jewish Revolutionary War hero. He was also an active and devout Jew who helped establish and maintain the Jewish community in Savannah. His own home served as the unofficial house of worship for Congregation Mickve Israel (using the Torah his father had brought with him when he emigrated from England) until an actual edifice was built after the war. He also donated the land for the first major Jewish cemetery in Georgia, which was known for some time as the Sheftall Cemetery.

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