Westport Links With America’s Oldest Synagogue

You wouldn’t think that a recent “06880” story on an antique New York City map would lead to a Westport connection with the oldest synagogue in North America.

Then again, you wouldn’t figure that Luis Gomez was Jewish.

The piece focused on Westporter Robert Augustyn, and a 1740 map his company acquired. It was the first to show that synagogue, on Manhattan’s Mill Street.

Benjamin Gomes, great-grandson of Luis Moses Gomez.

Robert Jacobs quickly responded. He and his cousin Joel Treisman — both Westporters — are direct descendants of Luis Moses Gomez. The Sephardic Jewish immigrant, whose parents escaped the Spanish Inquisition, led the drive to finance and construct Shearith Israel — that first-ever New York congregation, founded in the late 1680s — and served as its first parnas (president).

But Jacobs’ story goes much deeper.

He is not a religious person. Yet in 1973, his family got a call from the owner of a house in Marlboro, New York. He was selling his property, which originally belonged to a direct Jacobs ancestor: Gomez.

In 1714, he had purchased 1,000 acres near Newburgh, New York. Later, with his sons Jacob and Daniel, he bought 3,000 more.

Gomez built a fieldstone blockhouse to conduct trade and maintain provisions in the Mid-Hudson region.

“Everyone thinks of the early settlers in this region as Dutch and English,” Jacobs says. “But there were some very important Jewish settlers too.” Gomez arrived in New York City in 1703.

Jacobs adds, “Jewish immigrants were not just the Ashkenazis and Russians of the late 1800s. Sephardic Jews were here too.”

They were world traders. Gomez’ family was involved in chocolate, potash, furs and other commodities. They also quarried limestone, milled timber — and donated funds to rebuild New York’s Trinity Church steeple.

Jacobs was just 27 when the Gomez house went on the market. He called his cousin, Treisman.

Robert Jacobs and Joel Treisman.

As they researched its history, they learned that Gomez was not the only fascinating character. During its 300 years, “Gomez Mill House” served as home to Revolutionary patriot Wolfert Ecker; 19th-century gentleman farmer and conservationist William Henry Armstrong; artisan and historian Dard Hunter, and 20th-century suffragette Martha Gruening.

Six years after buying the property, Jacobs’ family created a non-profit. In 1984 the Gomez Foundation purchased the Mill House, and established it as a public museum.

The Gomez Mill House today.

The house is being preserved as as a significant national museum. The oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobs’ foundation also offers programs about the contributions of former Mill House owners to the multicultural history of the Hudson River Valley. Over 1,000 children tour the museum each year.

Today, Jacobs says, “Freedom, tolerance and opportunity is one of the missions of Gomez Mill House.” The foundation’s work seems particularly timely today.

One of the lovingly restored rooms in the Gomez Mill House.

Jacobs and Treisman serve on the board. They’re joined by fellow Westporter Andrée Aelion Brooks. The former New York Times writer — an expert on Jewish history — lectures frequently for the foundation.

Not many people — even Jews — know about Luis Moses Gomez.

But Robert Jacobs, Joel Treisman and their family have spent 40 years getting to know their ancestor. The story they share is fascinating.

And Gomez Mill House is just an hour and a half away.

(For more information on Gomez Mill House, click here.)

4 responses to “Westport Links With America’s Oldest Synagogue

  1. Fascinating well written piece.

  2. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Terrific writing as usual. The Westport connection has always fascinated me and once again it has happened. planning on making a visit when the home reopens.

  3. Bravo Bob & Joel!!

    And thanks, Dan, for bringing this story to light.

  4. Bob and Joel,
    I’ve known both of you for years and had heard about this from Joel many years ago – but I had no idea you were cousins! What a great piece of history to preserve. Big kudos to your family for doing it!