Vice President Kamala Harris on April 15th hosted the first-ever Passover Seder at the U.S. Naval Observatory. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “American Jews and the American Story,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talked about the complicated historical interplay between the Jewish community and American political culture, from the “Lost Tribes” theory, to Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War anti-Semitism, to the reception of Anne Frank’s diary. Another intriguing moment in the Jewish American story came in 1930, when the confluence of Passover, Palm Sunday, and Thomas Jefferson’s 187th birthday became a national opportunity to celebrate religious pluralism.

On December 30th, 1929, banker Felix Warburg wrote to President Herbert Hoover about the confluence of the first full day of Passover (the weeklong Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt), Palm Sunday (the Christian commemoration of Christ’s arrival to Jerusalem before his crucifixion), and Jefferson’s birthday. Warburg argued that the amalgam was particularly fitting given Jefferson’s authorship of the famed 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Warburg outlined a plan to coordinate with governors of all 48 states to put on Jefferson tributes at schools and houses of worship. “We shall be very grateful to you for whatever assistance you may be able to afford to this educational and patriotic work,” he wrote. “With assurances of our very high esteem and regard, I beg to remain, my dear Mr. Hoover, Yours very respectfully, FELIX M. WARBURG.”

Hoover wrote back on February 16th, 1930, endorsing Warburg’s plan: “It would seem to me to be a fitting and inspiring undertaking.”

The “Religious Freedom Sunday” was the culmination of a lifetime of Warburg’s advocacy. Warburg was part of a legendary German Jewish banking family. He was born in Hamburg and immigrated to America in 1894, at age 23. He married Frieda Schiff, the daughter of another leading Jewish banker, Jacob Schiff. Warburg joined his father-in-law’s investment bank, Kuhn, Loeb & Co. and built a grand neo-gothic mansion on the Upper East Side.

As Warburg consolidated his fortune and political power in New York, he became the Treasurer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the President of the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies.

Passover took on an increasing significance in Warburg’s philanthropic work. Throughout World War I, he orchestrated through the Distribution Committee a Passover drive for at-risk Jews in Europe and Palestine.

The 1916 Relief Fund appeal explicitly invoked the Jewish biblical escape: “The exodus—it is that which turns our minds towards the thousands of our people who are moving upon the highways of Europe. We can see old men, white with the snow of ages, who call to their God to lead them out of these lands of desolation, as He led his children from the Land of Egypt.” 

In 1929, Warburg spent the holiday in Jerusalem. Warburg and his close friend Cyrus Adler, a Semitic language scholar, dedicated the nascent Hebrew University’s library on Mount Scopus. Warburg was known as a “non-Zionist,” meaning that he was ambivalent about the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In his dedication address, he instead focused on an inclusive vision of the country’s economic growth: “Any one desiring to help Palestine is a friend of the country, whether Zionist or non-Zionist.” 

Warburg’s pluralism with regard to Palestine reflected his views on American religious cooperation. In the 1920s, he developed an abiding interest in Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. Part of Warburg’s passion may have resulted from his friendship with the aforementioned Cyrus Adler. In 1885, as a student at Johns Hopkins, Adler had discovered part of the long-missing Jefferson Bible, a retelling of the New Testament in which Jefferson had excised all miraculous or supernatural happenings. Adler tracked down the full document in 1895. In a posthumous tribute to Warburg, Adler wrote, “He felt that Jefferson was just as much entitled to a shrine as Washington.”

Warburg served on the Board of Governors of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The group purchased Monticello, Jefferson’s former mansion and plantation outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1923. The foundation bought the estate from former New York Congressman Jefferson Levy, who was also a Jewish American. Levy had inherited the property from his uncle, who had bought it shortly after Jefferson’s death.

Having secured President Hoover’s support, Warburg teamed up with fellow foundation mainstay Claude Bowers, a Democratic Party speechwriter and historian who had penned the 1925 Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America, to plan the Passover-Palm Sunday-Jefferson extravaganza. 

Two days before the holiday, on April 11th, 1930, Hoover sent a public telegram to Warburg reiterating his support for the commemoration: “Jefferson’s contribution, together with that of the other fathers of the Republic, to the famous Statute for Religious Freedom and his life-long championship of that principle decisively helped to fix it permanently in the national policy, with results beneficent beyond calculation. It is useful to recall these benefits and to renew their sanctions in the general conscience of mankind.”

Warburg’s publicizing of the confluence worked. At 10 AM on “Religious Freedom Sunday,” bells rang in churches, synagogues, schools, and many public buildings across the nation, as rabbis and pastors reflected on Jefferson, liberty, and the struggles facing the country.

In the Bronx, Montefiore Synagogue Rabbi Jacob Katz praised Jefferson and tied his mission to the struggles of the Great Depression: “Championing the rights of the common people is the prophetic voice which rang through the writing of America’s statesman, philosopher and sage, Thomas Jefferson. It is the call that cries to us today to relieve the poor, to remove oppression, to create economic equality. We see in Jefferson a spokesman of the prophetic policies of Israel, a messenger of blessing for all mankind.” 

A few miles South, at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Nathan Krass compared Jefferson to Moses: “The conception of religious liberty as given by Israel to the world is unique. Firstly, the conception is democratic. When Pharaoh asked Moses who of the Jews he wished to liberate, Moses replied, everybody. He realized that only in totality is perfect religious liberty.” 

The celebrations went off in huge numbers. Democratic National Committee estimated around 1,200 celebrations by Democratic Party groups alone.

At Monticello, Warburg and Bowers celebrated with the rest of the Board and a group of legislators who had driven down in a convoy organized by Rosalie Jones Dill, wife of Washington Senator Clarence Dill

Senator Dill, a progressive Democrat, used the occasion as an opportunity to speak out against conservatives who supported Jefferson–and to encourage fellow legislators to vote against Hoover’s Supreme Court nominee John J. Parker, then under fire for past statements opposing the right to vote for Black Americans and criticizing labor unions. Parker would be rejected by the Senate the following month. “First of all, [Jefferson] would be a progressive,” Dill said. “If he were a Senator today, he would fight the confirmation of any man for Judge of the United States Supreme Court who has placed property rights above human rights.”

Dill also argued for a new Declaration of Independence updated to meet the economic tensions of the age. “That new declaration should not be a repudiation of monarchy, but a vote against the rule of money,” Dill proclaimed. “That new declaration should be a clarion call to a revolution with ballots to prevent our becoming a nation of employees under an oligarchy of money kings.” 

Meanwhile, Ohio Senator and strident Hoover surrogate Simeon Fess laid a wreath of magnolia leaves and palms sent by the President on Jefferson’s tomb while a circling airplane dropped flowers from above.

Three Richmond-based religious figures spoke: Methodist Episcopal Bishop (and arch-segregationist) Collins Denny, Catholic Bishop John Kelliher, and Reform Rabbi Edward Calisch. Like Warburg, Calisch was a vocal supporter of the Republican Party, but with a more populist streak than the financier; he had been an early and ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and was far more vocally opposed to Jewish statehood than even Warburg, arguing that Judaism was “a kingdom of priests, not of politicians.” 

In a wide-ranging address next to the tomb, Calisch offered his own political interpretation of the tripartite holiday: “In a day when there is constant, and sometimes unhappily successful attempt made to stifle academic freedom by the gag of fundamentalistic legislation, to circumscribe civil freedom within the straight jacket of a narrow particularistic puritanic conception of morals and to destroy religious freedom by the domination of sectarian powers…it is necessary that we invoke the memory of America’s greatest apostle of freedom.” 

The Monticello event was a boon to the foundation, helping Warburg to raise some of the outstanding funds on the property’s mortgage. Warburg would continue to center Passover in his good works; in 1934, one year after Hitler seized power and just three years before Warburg would die of a heart attack at 66, he orchestrated a week-long, $3 million fundraising campaign for German Jewish refugees coinciding with the holiday. 

92 years on from “Religious Freedom Sunday,” questions of religious pluralism, freedom of expression, and anti-Semitism continue to be central to American popular discourse. Warburg’s hopeful vision of true religious and cultural collaboration may still be elusive, but his utilization of Passover as an opportunity for communion and unity resonates in our fractious time.

For more on Felix Warburg, read Ron Chernow’s 1993 The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family. To learn more about the effort to restore Monticello, check out Marc Leepson’s 2002 Saving Monticello The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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