Congregation Mikveh Israel will celebrate Presidents’ Day by hosting the very first president: George Washington.
The real Washington, of course, died in 1799, but the foremost impersonator of America’s father, Upper Moreland resident Dean Malissa, is alive and impersonating. And so it will be Malissa, as the first president, who headlines Mikveh Israel’s Feb. 21 event at 1 p.m.
For the main show, the actor will celebrate not just Presidents’ Day but Washington’s relationship with the Jewish people. Malissa will read the president’s letter to Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1790 affirming Washington’s support for religious freedom.
The letter is similar, though less famous, to Washington’s note that same year to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.
Washington was already serving as the nation’s first chief executive, and his words are known for establishing the precedent of religious freedom in the United States.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights,” Washington wrote in his letter to the Touro Synagogue. “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Mikveh Israel’s event, co-hosted with the Museum of the American Revolution, is free and open to the public. The synagogue, which traces its own history to colonial times, is at 44 N. Fourth St. in Philadelphia. Tours showcasing the congregation’s historical artifacts from early Jewish life in America, which include correspondence and other documents, will be available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Rabbi Albert Gabbai said his synagogue has held the event for “many years,” though the last one was in 2019 before the pandemic. COVID case numbers have declined since the peak of the omicron surge in January.
Gabbai said it’s important for Mikveh Israel to bring back its Presidents’ Day celebration.
“It projects an image that Jews were an integral part of the citizens from the beginning of us becoming a nation,” he added.
Malissa, who is Jewish, also believes that it’s important to emphasize this history. He has done this event in the past and built up a relationship with Gabbai.
The Washington impersonator is semi-retired, having graduated to emeritus status at Mount Vernon, the president’s Virginia estate-turned historical attraction. But Malissa still does events because he wants to continue telling the story.
And the letters, in his opinion, are a huge part of Washington’s legacy.
“You had these people who left Europe and a history of pogroms and second- and third-class citizenship,” Malissa said of the Jews. “Now, they’re in a new promised land and for the chief magistrate to welcome that, it’s profound.”
For Washington, the Newport letter was a response to a letter from the Touro Synagogue expressing support for the president. Two other congregations at the time, including Mikveh Israel and one in Savannah, Georgia, wrote their own notes, too.
It’s often an untold part of the story that the founding father responded to all of them, not just Touro’s; and the father of our country echoed the same principle of religious freedom in each letter, according to Gabbai.
The rabbi and his Philadelphia congregation still have their letter and will put it on display for visitors who tour the synagogue on Presidents’ Day.
“We are blessed to be in this country, where Jews are not officially oppressed by the government,” Gabbai said.
Malissa has read both letters, the one to the Touro Synagogue and the one to Mikveh Israel, several times in the past. Usually, regardless of which one he recites, he sees a similar scene play out in the audience.
There’s always a percentage of people who are unfamiliar with Washington’s history of writing letters to rabbis and congregations, according to Malissa. When they learn about this history, they react with an “aha” on their faces, the impersonator said.
“It’s always cool to see,” he added.
Gabbai expects 50 to 60 people to attend the event. But Mikveh Israel has room for more if residents are interested.
He put the word out via email to the synagogue’s 200 or so member families.
Tickets must be bought ahead of time at amrevmuseum.org on the events page. Guests ages two and up must wear facemasks in accordance with Philadelphia’s health and safety guidelines, per an event press release.