The Philadelphia Jewish Voice bumped into Pennsylvania’s most senior delegate at the National Museum of American Jewish History, before the Bend the Arc reception during the Democratic National Convention. To our delight, Benjamin Franklin took the opportunity to chat with us about the convention and his relationship with the Jewish community.
Since Benjamin Franklin never joined a political party, he was not a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (The DNC’s oldest delegates are actually Ohioan Ruby Gilliam (93) and Louisianan Felicia Kahn (90).) However, Franklin was one of the Pennsylvania delegates signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and the United States Constitution on February 17, 1787 at Independence Hall here in Philadelphia.
Since we serve Philadelphia’s Jewish community, I asked Franklin about his relationship with the Jewish community. While many called Franklin a deist or an atheist, he said this was not true. He believed in a creator who regards us with benevolence and should be served by us. Though he rarely attended religious services, he felt that organized religion was necessary to encourage people to be good unto each other and keep the population virtuous.
Accordingly, he supported all of the religious institutions of Philadelphia and contributed generously to Congregation Mikveh Israel’s building fund. The synagogue served a community of 300 Jews among the 35,000 residents of Philadelphia in 1775.
As an example of his openness and ecumenical spirit, he related the story his grandson who desired to marry the daughter of the Briands, a prominent Catholic family in France. They objected to the marriage on the grounds that their daughter could only marry another Catholic. He asked if the Briands had sugar. Their sugar was in cubes decorated in colorful wrapping paper. He said that good deeds and faith in God are like sugar, and the particularities of a religion are like the wrapping paper around it. The sugar is what is important, not the wrapping paper. The family relented and the couple was happily married.
Before his death in 1790, Franklin asked only that the local Protestant rector, the Catholic priest at Saint Joseph’s and the Rabbi of Mikveh Israel be asked to attend. Indeed they were honored to serve as his pallbearers. In all, 20,000 people were on hand as this great man was interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.