George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom
After completing the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site in 2009, Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. realized that his efforts to promote religious freedom and separation of church and state were hardly finished. The years of research and learning that went into creating the exhibits at the Visitors Center had built up a vast store of knowledge about the history of religious freedom in Rhode Island and the other American colonies. It revealed much about the role Jews had played in the emergence of the new nation. Above all, it provided in-depth information and analysis of Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation.
With this knowledge in hand, Ambassador Loeb founded the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom (GWIRF) as a public, non-profit organization whose mission would be two-fold: to operate and maintain the Loeb Visitors Center and, secondly, to encourage students, teachers and other citizens about the vital message contained in Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation.
More specifically, GWIRF’S educational goal was to help students, teachers and public leaders worldwide to go beyond “mere” toleration of our religious differences to sincere respect for each other’s beliefs and observances. This position reflects George Washington’s aspiration, expressed to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport: each of us must give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” We must show respect for each other’s religious beliefs, even those most different from our own – so long as those ideas are lawful and contribute to a peaceful society.
In January, 2016, GWIRF and The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, reached an agreement establishing the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom, supported by a generous endowment supplied by the John L. Loeb, Jr. Foundation. While GWIRF will continue to operate and maintain the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, the new Loeb Institute at GWU will be responsible for continuing GWIRF’s educational outreach activities.
Below is a list of GWIRF’s educational outreach activities prior to the establishment of the Loeb Institute at GWU.
Curriculum and Teacher Seminars
In 2010, GWIRF funded the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) to create a curriculum, Religious Liberty: The American Experiment, and a website. The BRI has delivered 24 constitutional seminars and two webinars for teachers utilizing the curriculum. These seminars have reached close to 1,000 teachers in 23 cities.
Curriculum, Events, Workshops and Seminars
In 2010, GWIRF funded Facing History and Ourselves (FH&O) to initiate a long-term project titled Give Bigotry No Sanction – The George Washington Project: Exploring Religious Freedom and Democracy. Facing History believes that young people can learn civic responsibility and respect for individual rights. FH&O created a website for the project; developed a curriculum Religious Freedom and Democracy: Teaching George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island; promoted awareness of the Letter through five “community events” for large public audiences; delivered ten educator workshops and seminars focused on religious liberty in the US and one in Paris, France; and conducted two national webinars.
National High School Essay Competition
With funding and supporting materials provided by GWIRF, First Freedom Center designated religious liberty principles in the George Washington Letter as its 16th annual essay theme for the 2008-2009 academic year, reaching more than 75,000 teachers and department heads in almost 300 school systems. With GWIRF’s funding, First Freedom was able to repeat this program during the 2012-2013 school year.
Future Teachers Initiative
The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation provided very generous support to GWIRF in order to establish its Future Teachers Initiative. Utilizing the expertise that GWIRF and its partners have developed to train teachers already in the classroom, this initiative offers a range of resources about the George Washington Letter to faculty in schools and departments of education at colleges and universities across the country so that they can train our future middle and high school teachers in the George Washington Letter.
Inclusive America Project
GWIRF is a sponsor of and participant in the Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project, under the aegis of the Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program that is directed by Meryl Justin Chertoff, Esq. The Inclusive America Project is co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, Professor of Public Service and Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. This unique endeavor promises to bring the message of Washington’s Letter to the more than 9 million children and families at branches of the national YMCA of the USA and the national Boys and Girls Clubs of America. GWIRF has collaborated with the Aspen Institute and others to develop staff training materials about religious diversity for use by staff and leaders of local YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs. One such resource is a manual entitled “Religious Diversity and Youth Development” that is comprised of eight real-life scenarios with accompanying discussion questions.
Individual High School Essay Contests
Over the past several years, GWIRF has sponsored annual essay contests based on the contemporary relevance of the George Washington Letter. The contest was begun at The Hotchkiss School in 1992, and additional essay contests have been funded at Harrison High School in New York, Rogers High School in Newport, RI, and Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, MD.
Letter Reading Programs
In February, 2010, GWIRF began bringing Washington’s Letter into high school classrooms at the time of Washington’s Birthday. In Rhode Island, 30,000 copies of the Letter were distributed to every junior and senior high school student in the state. In February 2011, with the support of the Manhattan Borough President, the New York City Department of Education, the Bill of Rights Institute, Facing History and First Freedom Center, New York City public school teachers participated in Letter Reading exercises as part of the NYC Department of Education’s “Respect for All” programming. On February 15, 2011, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer led a reading and discussion at Manhattan’s Facing History School. In the spring of 2012, he informed his fellow borough presidents of the Letter Reading Program. On February 15, 2012, Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. led a reading and discussion at Manhattan’s Vanguard High School. On February 20, 2013, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer led another reading and discussion at Patrick Henry Preparatory School, PS 171. On February 19, 2014, GWIRF’s advisory board member Dan Lufkin led a Letter Reading Program in several classes at his children’s Rumsey Hall School in Washington Depot, CT.
Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom at Harvard
From 2012 to 2015, GWIRF and the Loeb Fellowship Fund at Harvard University sponsored Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies (CAPS) to coordinate the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom, a university-wide research and study of the relationship of religious freedom and religious pluralism to the political, economic, cultural and social development of nations. CAPS awarding research grants and fellowships to students and, eventually, to faculty to support their research. The Initiative also sponsored a major symposium chaired by University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Beginning in 2016, the Loeb Initiative on Religious Freedom at Harvard University will be under the direction of the University’s Committee on the Study of Religion and housed at the Harvard Divinity School.
In 2013, GWIRF published Melvin I. Urofsky’s A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, RI and Touro Synagogue. In this book, Dr. Urofsky recounts the unique history of Jewish settlers in Rhode Island—the first colony to grant its citizens freedom to worship in the manner of their choosing. This book provides readers of all religions with insights into an often overlooked, important and inspiring aspect of American history. It is available from Amazon.com (paperback or eBook).
In July 2015, Facing History and Ourselves published Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry: Reflections on Our First President’s Famous 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the cornerstone of the Give Bigotry No Sanction Project, a collaborative effort of Facing History and Ourselves and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. This collection contains more than 30 essays by distinguished figures from around the world, across disciplines, and with diverse perspectives, each of whom uses George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island as a springboard for addressing important and timely questions regarding religious freedom and freedom of choice. It is available from Amazon (paperback or eBook), AbeBooks (paperback), and other booksellers.
Spectacle of Toleration Commemoration
In 2013, GWIRF became a major sponsor of “Spectacle of Toleration”, a year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Rhode Island Charter establishing that colony as the first political entity in the world to tolerate all religions and separate the church from the state. The Newport Historical Society served as the “Spectacle of Toleration” organizer in Newport itself. GWIRF also co-sponsored and participated in the year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI.
Outreach to Ambassadors Abroad
The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom provides materials and support to sitting American Ambassadors throughout the world, encouraging them to read the Letter in a public forum on appropriate occasions in the nation to which they are posted.
In December of 2014, Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. wrote to American ambassadors around the world to remind them of the observance of George Washington’s Birthday during Presidents’ Day on February 16, 2015 or his actual birthday on February 22.
Ambassador Loeb encouraged the individual ambassadors to consider taking the opportunity to highlight our first president’s commitment to religious freedom by holding an event at their respective embassies that day or evening. We believe you will find it heartwarming to read the ambassadors’ responses.