Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Evacuation Day

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called upon the American people to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. In New York, however, there was already a holiday at the end of November known as Evacuation Day. Celebrated on November 25, Evacuation Day commemorated the day on which the British soldiers finally left New York City (almost three months after the war ended). It was a well-loved holiday, and the centennial was noted as one of the greatest civic events of the 19th century. With the popularization of Thanksgiving (and stronger ties with Britain), however, Evacuation Day celebrations slowly disappeared.

Jewish Treats has highlighted this old holiday because the New York Jewish community was greatly affected by the British occupation of the city. When the Revolutionary War broke out, there was one synagogue in New York, Congregation Shearith Israel, whose chazzan (prayer leader) and minister,* Gershom Mendes Seixas, was the first native-born head of an American congregation. Like many of his congregants, Seixas was a supporter of the revolution. At the behest of similarly-minded community members (such as Jonas Phillips), Seixas closed Shearith Israel and took its valuables with him to Philadelphia for safekeeping. The New York congregants greatly bolstered the community of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.

One of the congregants who did not immediately leave the city was Haym Salomon, who not only used his financial know-how to the benefit of the Revolutionary troops, but also used his ability to talk German to turn a number of Hessian mercenaries against the British. 

Although many of those who left New York at the beginning of the revolution permanently settled in Philadelphia, the evacuation of the British troops from New York allowed the rest to return. From 1783 onward, the New York Jewish community began to thrive and is, today, the home of one of the world’s largest Jewish populations.

*He did not receive the formal semicha (ordination) of a rabbi.

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