The Seixas Award

The Gershom Mendes Seixas Award is bestowed by Columbia/Barnard Hillel on those who have made outstanding contributions to Jewish life at Columbia University and Barnard College.

Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first native-born American Jewish community religious leader, Revolutionary Patriot, and Jewish Trustee of Columbia College, was born in 1746. His father was a Portuguese Morrano who had returned to openly practicing Judaism, and his mother was the daughter of Moses Levy, a leader of early New York Jewry. Although there was no rabbinical seminary anywhere in the American colonies, young Gershom undertook the study of Hebrew texts and, at age 23, became the spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest synagogue in North America.

Seixas was one of the incorporators of Columbia College and served as a trustee for over 30 years. He wrote the Hebrew oration that Sampson Simson, the first Jewish graduate of the university, delivered at commencement exercises in 1800. In tribute to Seixas’ commitment, Columbia University issued a bronze medal with his portrait, a replica of which has been made into the Seixas award.

A committed patriot, Seixas refused a British order that his congregation pray for King George III. When the British captured the city, he chose to close his synagogue and leave New York rather than give allegiance to the King. He took the community’s Torah scrolls and prayer books to Philadelphia, where he served as the first head of Congregation Mikveh Israel.

After the Revolution, Seixas returned to New York and participated in George Washington’s presidential inauguration. He was the first religious leader of any faith to preach a Thanksgiving sermon. Copies of his speech were printed in the thousands, with all proceeds benefiting the widows and orphans of the Revolutionary War.

Gershom Mendes Seixas died in 1816 at the age of 70, a renowned leader who promoted the intellectual growth of his city, the nation, and Columbia. The plaque in his memory at Shearith Israel is inscribed to the “patriot Rabbi of the American revolution.”

Past Honorees

Robert K. Kraft, 2001
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, 2001
Herman Wouk, 2001
Dr. George E. Rupp, 2002
Edgar M. Bronfman, 2003
Earle W. Kazis, 2003
Harvey M. Krueger, 2004
Judith Shapiro, P.h.D., 2004
Michael I. Sovern, 2005
Ira A. Lipman, 2006
Ruth E. Horowitz, 2007
Richard E. Kobrin, 2007
Professor Robert Pollack, 2008

Dr. Allen Hyman, 2009

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, 2009
Julius Genachowski, 2010
Jay Lefkowitz, 2010
Dorothy Urman Denburg, 2012
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 2012
The Honorable Judith S. Kaye, 2013
Bernard W. Nussbaum, 2013
Jonathan S. Lavine, 2014
Michael P. Lustig, 2015
Dr. Judith W. Schwartz, 2015
Ronald O. Perelman, 2016
Mark E. Kingdon, 2017                                                     

Jim McMenamin, 2018

Rabbi Michael Paley, 2018