Unpack with YUPAC: The Story of Jonas Phillips and Our Role as Jewish Citizens and American Jews
In 1750, a German Jew named Jonas Phillips moved to the colony of New York to escape pogroms and rising antisemitism in Europe. Philips was very poor upon his arrival; he was able to enter the Colonies as an indentured servant to another American Jew. At that time, the promise of America was his driving and motivating factor, but he could never imagine the success that he would ultimately find there.
Upon working off his debts, he moved to New York. He was an active Patriot in the 1770s and a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. From the founding of America, he was involved both in contemporary society and in American Jewish life.
At the time, America offered rather favorable conditions for the Jews. While Phillip’s European brothers were suffering through programs, blood libels and violent acts of antisemitism, Phillips and his family were living a much better life. He was financially stable, his family was safe and he was free to openly practice halacha and live publicly as a Jew.
That, however, didn't stop Phillips from demanding more. On September 7, 1787, ten days before the ratification of the United States Constitution, Phillips wrote a letter to George Washington during the Constitutional Convention to complain about the religious discrimination he was facing, demanding equal treatment.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, delegates were required to take an oath to serve as a delegate, swearing that the Old and New Testaments were written through divine inspiration. This oath prohibited Jews from joining the government and serving in the legislature, and violated the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights’ promise of religious freedom.
Phillips argues that full freedom of religion does not mean the right to be left alone to practice one’s religion, or to not be forced to worship a religion you don’t believe in. Rather, it means the freedom to be an actively involved member of society, to take your religion and your values into the public square and to have the same privileges as all other religious individuals. Phillips did not stay quiet and accept that although America was not perfect, it was better than Europe. He took a stand and demanded that the country live up to its promise of always striving to be a more perfect union. Phillips' letter ultimately led to the foundation for true religious liberty in America.
The story of Jonas Phillips allows us to answer the question; “What does it mean to be both a Jew and an American? How can one be both?”
Jonas Phillips saw something unique in America. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we don’t reject society, we ask to be involved in and engaged in society, on the condition that we recognize our faith also sets us apart. We live by YU’s duality of both Torah and Madda. This is what Phillips’ legacy demands from us; to be both an American and a Jew, to be involved in the endeavors of American society, but to bring our Jewishness with us.
Dr. Ruth Wisse, a prominent scholar of Jewish history and culture, said, “Modern Orthodox Jews are counted on to combine a commitment to Judaism and citizenship of the first order.” Our Jewish values and American citizenship do not exist in separate spheres of our lives, but should rather go hand in hand.
Jonas Phillips had been involved in American politics throughout the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the country, all while maintaining a strong Jewish identity, a strict adherence to halacha and while raising the next generation of Jewish leaders. These lessons still apply to us today a quarter of a millennium later. As American Jews, we all have the power to embrace our citizenship and our Jewish values to make a true difference. Despite the many challenges on the rise, we have the ability to get involved and to promote real, meaningful change. This is not just an opportunity but also a responsibility for each of us to look around at what in the world we can fix, and follow in the footsteps of Jonas Phillips and make a difference in the world.
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Photo Caption: The First Amendment to The U.S. Constitution Monument in Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia
Photo Credit: Ed Uthman / Wikimedia Commons