views updated


SEIXAS , family of prominent U.S. communal leaders. gershom mendes seixas (1746–1816) was the first nativeborn Jewish minister in the United States and one of the most noted of early American Jews. He was the grandson of abraham mendes seixas, a London broker, and the son of isaac mendes seixas (1709–1782), founder of the American branch of the Seixas family, who was at various times a merchant in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Isaac Seixas married Rachel Levy (1719–1797), daughter of Moses *Levy, in 1740, and Gershom Seixas was one of seven children. He studied with the ḥazzan Joseph Pinto and in 1768 was appointed ḥazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. During the turmoil of the American Revolution, Gershom and his family moved first to Connecticut in 1776 and then to Philadelphia in 1780, returning to New York in 1784. While in Philadelphia, Seixas served as minister to Congregation Mikveh Israel, which he helped to organize. Constantly troubled over questions of salary and housing, he served as the community expert on Jewish law and practice, attending to ritual matters concerning birth, marriage, and death, and considerations of synagogue service. He was instrumental in saving the Jewish cemetery at Chatham Square, in New York, from obliteration. In 1793 he organized a Hebrew school and in 1803 taught at the Polonies Talmud Torah School. A year before, he helped establish Hebra Hased Va-Amet and earlier in 1798 the Kalfe Sedeka Matten Besether, both charitable institutions. He was also a self-taught mohel and shoḥet.

Among Seixas' more noted sermons was one which he delivered in 1798 in a defense of French-American relations, despite bitter opposition in New York to the French Revolution. Other sermons called for relief funds for refugees of Indian attacks on the old northwest frontier (1799) and relief for those made homeless by the British during the war of 1812 (1814). Gershom was invited to President Washington's inauguration in 1789. He served as a trustee of the Humane Society and of Columbia College from 1784 to 1814. In 1784 he was elected by the New York State Legislature to the first Board of Regents of the State University.

Seixas' brothers were: abraham mendes (1751–99), an officer in the revolutionary army who fought in the southern colonies; benjamin mendes (1748–1817), one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange; and moses mendes (1744–1809), one of the organizers and first cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island and in 1790 president of the Newport congregation. david g. (1788–1865), one of Gershom Seixas' children, established the Deaf and Dumb Institute in Philadelphia. He was among the first to discover ways of burning anthracite coal, and helped to introduce daguerrotypes to the U.S. Seixas manufactured crockery in Philadelphia, and has been credited as the father of this art in the U.S.


D. de Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone (1952), index; J.J. Lyons, in: ajhsp, 27 (1920), 346–70.

[Leo Hershkowitz]