Buffalo Museum Holds Relic of Failed U.S. Refuge for Jews

Among the items of Judaica on display at a museum here is the remnant of what one 19th-century American Jew intended to be a homeland for the Jewish people.

A large concrete block inscribed in English and Hebrew, dating from 1825, was the cornerstone for Ararat, a city for the world’s Jews that Mordecai Manuel Noah, a Philadelphia-born writer and politician, attempted to found on Grand Island.

The block sits at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society as part of its “Neighbors” exhibition, which explores the area’s ethnic and cultural diversity, and includes a variety of Jewish items.

The little-known story of Ararat is one of the most fascinating chapters of the early history of Jews in North America.

In the biblical account of the flood, Ararat was the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest when the waters receded.

In Buffalo, the story involved another man named Noah and another place called Ararat, now anonymously incorporated into the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda.

In 1825, Grand Island was an uninhabited and heavily wooded island in the Niagara River. Noah dreamed of establishing a community called Ararat there as a “city of refuge” for the Jews of the world.

An early, ardent Zionist, Noah never surrendered the Messianic dream of a return to Palestine.

In the meantime, however, he felt that his oppressed Jewish brethren around the world deserved a “temporary and provisionary” home where they could live with freedom and dignity.

He wrote to Jewish leaders worldwide that “an asylum is prepared and hereby offered” to the Jewish people “where they can enjoy that peace, comfort and happiness which have been denied to them through the intolerance and misgovernment of former ages.”

One rabbinical authority at the time branded Noah a charlatan and “demanded authentification of the prophetic text which points out a marsh in North America as the spot for reassembling the scattered remains of Israel.”

Noah envisioned levying a small tax on all Jews for the maintenance of Ararat.

Ararat was to be a city of 1,000 acres built on the southeastern section of the small island. Noah’s plan was to divide the city into 1,000 even lots and sell them for $100 each to cover the isle’s purchase price.

In a letter to Peter Porter, a hero of the War of 1812 and an influential political figure in nearby Black Rock, N.Y., Noah wrote that he planned to visit Europe to induce young, wealthy Jews to purchase lots and emigrate to the island.

Noah not only saw his Ararat scheme as a safe haven for European Jews, but also a sound investment.

“Such will be the pressure and anxiety in Europe to obtain a lot of undisputed title that the whole island can be disposed of with ease at an immense profit,” he wrote to Porter.

The land certainly was about to rise greatly in value, as Noah had foreseen, because of its proximity to the western terminus of the newly built Erie Canal, linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

On Sept. 15, 1825, Noah presided over a ceremony in which he dedicated a cornerstone for his dream-city in the wilderness. Crowds hoping to witness the historic event lined the shores of the Niagara River, but the river had been too difficult to cross, so the event was moved at the last minute to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo.

“Revival of the Jewish Government,” read the headline on the Buffalo Emporium story about the dedication.

The large cornerstone prepared for the dedication ceremony was inscribed “ARARAT — A City of Refuge for the Jews Founded by Mordecai Manuel Noah, in the month of Tizri 5586, Sept. 1825, & in the 50th year of American independence.” It also bears the words to the Hebrew prayer “Shema Israel.”

The cornerstone was the only part of Noah’s dream to become concrete reality. After the failure of his plan, he turned his energies toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Today, a large Holiday Inn stands on the site of his proposed Jewish utopia.

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