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Maryland’s “Jew Bill”

Posted on May 15th, 2020 by

Today we’re using our Voter Education blog to dive back into history and to talk about the Jew Bill in Maryland. This bill was a big turning point for Jewish communities in Maryland and Baltimore and changed the trajectory of Jewish involvement and engagement with public life. This bill changed the way that Jewish Marylanders could participate in government, and therefore advocate for themselves and their communities. To learn more about the Jew Bill, we need to start with the historical context of the time, and why it was so important to get it passed in the Maryland government.

Touro Synagogue, in Newport Rhode Island, is the oldest, still standing synagogue in the US. It was built in 1763.

Until the late 1700s, there weren’t many Jewish families in Maryland. The earliest Jewish immigration to the US in the colonial era was mainly Sephardic Jews or Jewish people from Spanish and Portuguese descent. This included Sephardic Dutch Jews, who settled in Newport and built Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue building in the US, as well as those who moved to South Carolina, home of the second oldest synagogue, Beth Elohim. These communities had more tolerance for non-Christians, and so Jewish people were better able to establish themselves. However, some Jewish people did move to Baltimore and Maryland, though they faced particular trouble while trying to create a community.

Looks familiar? This is actually Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina! Built in 1840, this building also displays the Greek Revival Style that our Lloyd Street Synagogue has.

In 1649, in an attempt to create more religious tolerance, the assembly of the Maryland colony passed the Act Concerning Religion or the Toleration Act. This act provided freedom of religion to Christians who believed in the Trinity, including the Catholic and Protestant members of the community, especially as they exchanged power over the colony. However, those who were non-Christians or did not believe in the divinity of the Trinity could be punished by execution or the seizure of their lands. Despite that this law preceded other laws guaranteeing religious freedom, Jewish people were risking their lives even practicing their religion, so it’s not a surprise that Maryland was not an attractive place to settle down, as a non-Christian.

This image shows the heading of the Tolerance Act, which greatly affected non-Christians.

The shadow of this law continued through the 1700s, to the ratification of the Maryland State Constitution in 1776. In it, the constitution states, “No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State… and a declaration of belief in the Christian religion.” Though Jewish people were no longer legally allowed to be executed for their beliefs, they could not serve in municipal or state office, join the military, or practice law. This discrimination made it less appealing for the Jewish community to live in Maryland, and so they decided to act. In 1779, Solomon Etting, who was a well-known Jewish Baltimorean, petitioned the state to amend the constitution, a bill that inspired the eventual “Jew Bill”. The Jewish community took up the cause, petitioning the legislature for the bill’s passage and writing to editors in local and national newspapers.

As this issue grew, state delegate Thomas Kennedy took up the cause, impassioned in his belief in religious freedom, despite never having met someone Jewish before. He introduced “An Act for the relief of the Jews of Maryland” which became known as the “Jew Bill.” Unfortunately, the Federalist Party, a strongly anti-immigrant party, opposed the bill enough to have it fail year after year. However, Kennedy bravely continued to fight for the passage of the bill, despite the negative effect it had on his career. Eventually, he was defeated for re-election in 1823, but he returned to office in 1825, running as an independent. This time, he was able to secure enough votes to pass the Jew Bill in 1826.

Thomas Kennedy, depicted here in profile in a black and white print, did a lot to help the Jewish community. Jewish community members regularly visit his grave to pay their respects.

This made a huge difference for the Jewish community in Maryland, allowing them to finally advocate fully in government. As we know from the history of the Lloyd Street synagogue, more Jewish people were immigrating from German-speaking countries. Having protections such as this law might have been one reason why Nidche Yisrael settled on Lloyd Street, creating Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the start of our Museum’s story. The effects of this bill are easy to see today, as we have multiple elected officials who identify as Jewish.

This version of the Jew Bill was introduced in 1819. The bill would not become law until seven years later.

Of course, the Bill wasn’t perfect, as it only extended rights to Jews. Other religious minorities did not see legislative protection until 1867 when all religious requirements were taken out of the constitution. However, there is still work to be done to ensure all freedoms for people in our country. Educating yourself about current laws and elections, as well as learning about the past, are all important as your role as a citizen of our country. Tune in next Friday for another opportunity to further your Voter Education!


 

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Program Wrap-Up: How Jews Entered American Politics: The Curious Case of Maryland’s “Jew Bill”

Posted on February 26th, 2015 by

 

Despite the wintry weather, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Rafael Medoff, the founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, to speak at the JMM this past Sunday. His talk focused on Maryland’s Jew Bill and explored how American Jews came to achieve full political equality in the United States. As Dr. Medoff explained, before there was a finalized federal constitution, the original 13 colonies had to have their own system of governance, which established the connection between one’s religious faith and the right to hold public office come. As each state enacted it’s constitution in 1776, each had to consider and articulate the qualification to hold public office. Many states, including Maryland, required an affirmation of one’s Christian faith in order to hold public office and enjoy other civic opportunities. The purpose, however, was not to exclude Jews, rather to affirm the Christian spirit of the new country but, consequently, it had the effect of excluding people. Critical turning point came after the Federal Constitution and northwest ordinance were enacted in 1787, which allowed the principle of full equality without Christian affirmation to be enshrined. However, the road to remedying the conflicting federal and state previsions was lengthy and complex and had a lasting impact on both local and global politics. It is this complex journey of the Jew Bill that sits at the heart of Dr. Medoff’s talk.

We are happy to invite you to listen and enjoy and even share this talk with friends and family!

 

We hope you will join us for our next talk on Sunday, March 29th at 1pm, where we’ll welcome Dr. Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University. She will be speaking on 19th century Egyptology and the collection of Mendes Cohen!

See you there!

See you there!

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The Test

Posted on January 12th, 2015 by

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. – US Constitution, Article VI (1787)

Many wonderful things happened over the recent winter break.  Mitzvah Day was a huge success.  We all had fun making jigsaw puzzles for the kids at The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai.  Gil Sandler gave a terrific talk on some of the colorful characters of early Baltimore.  Throughout the next week, we had a steady flow of last minute 2014 gifts to JMM – and we’re very grateful for your generous support.

But for me, the greatest surprise came from a single visitor, Yosef Kuperman.  Yosef had come to see The A-mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit.  I just happened to be in the lobby when Yosef walked through the door and we struck up a conversation.  What I discovered was that Yosef had a most unusual hobby.  Beginning with an independent study project he did at UMBC, Yosef had made himself an expert on the “Maryland Jew Bill” – the law that finally overturned Maryland’s required oath to the New Testament.  He had studied original speeches, voting data, and correspondence to get a much clearer picture of the forces that shaped this landmark legislation.

The Jew Bill

The Jew Bill

Yosef returned to JMM on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and we were able to have a long talk about what he found and he pointed me to an online resource for speeches that I now happily pass on to you:  http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t7kp82p35;view=1up;seq=7 (you will want to skip to page 59, for the start of the relevant speeches).

The current film, Selma, visits the period in our history when “tests” were used to disenfranchise voters. My conversation with Yosef reminded me of the long history of so-called “tests” to deprive people of equal rights.  The American experience has its roots in the “test acts” of 1673 in England.  The acts which required office holders to disavow transubstantiation and the invocation of saints was designed to bar Catholics from public service (these tests remained English law until 1828).  In America several states in rewriting there constitutions in 1776 replaced these detailed tests with a single oath to either affirm Christianity or the New Testament.  The US Constitution of 1787, quoted above, would appear to have settled the question, but that was not the case.  Maryland maintained its oath requirement, at least on paper, decades after the US Constitution was ratified.

selma

Solomon Etting is generally credited with initiating the repeal effort in 1797, but all attempts at passage before the War of 1812 failed.  I was aware of the fact that in the immediate post-War period the oath became a political wedge issue – with Democrats generally supporting repeal and Federalists weighing in on trying to preserving Maryland’s agrarian interests against the “foreigners” of Baltimore.  What Yosef brought to my attention is that by 1823 when the Jew Bill again fails to pass, the Federalists are already in decline and that there are many Democrats who are ardent opponents of the legislation.  What becomes clear from reading the speeches of the period is that many office holders came to Annapolis having made a pledge to their constituents on this issue.  In some instances, it seems to have served as a proxy for proving their own Christian character to their districts.

I encourage you to visit the website I have provided and read for yourself the arguments made in favor of religious tolerance.  I think you will find some of the rhetoric surprising, particularly Delegate Worthington’s case for attracting a larger Jewish community to improve the state’s economy.  I think you will find some of the public debate about religious liberty has echoes in our own time as well.  Perhaps we are not through with the real “test.”

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. 

 

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