Rabbi Gershon Avtzon

Have you ever wondered what the meaning of the name “Cincinnati” is? I have been living here for nearly two decades and I really never thought about it. Recently, I was reading an article about the relationship of the founding fathers of America and the Jewish people and, in the article, it mentioned that George Washington was a founding member of the “Society of the Cincinnati.” That piqued my interest to find out about that society, which still exists today, and how our city received its current name.

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by officers at the Continental Army encampment at Newburgh, New York, in May 1783. The organization took its name from the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, an embodiment of civic virtue. Mr. Cincinnatus worked his own small farm until an invasion prompted his fellow citizens to call for his leadership. He came from his plough to assume complete control over the state but, upon achieving a swift victory in only 16 days, relinquished his power and its perquisites and returned to his farm. 

His success and immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority at the end of this crisis (traditionally dated to 458 BC) has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, humility and modesty.

Its founding document, the Institution, outlines the aims of the new organization: “to perpetuate the memory of the War for Independence, maintain the fraternal bonds between the officers, promote the ideals of the Revolution, support members and their families in need, distinguish its members as men of honor, and advocate for the compensation promised to the officers by Congress.”

To achieve these aims, the Society called on its members to contribute a month’s pay. In order to perpetuate their fellowship, the founders made membership hereditary. George Washington was the first president general of the Society. The army’s chief of artillery, Henry Knox, was the chief author of the Institution.

The founding document begins as follows: “It having pleased the Supreme Governor of the Universe, in the disposition of human affairs, to cause the separation of the Colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain, and, after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them Free, Independent, and Sovereign States — connected by alliances founded on reciprocal advantage, with some of the great Princes and Powers of the Earth.

To perpetuate therefore, as well the remembrance of this vast event, as the mutual friendships which have been formed under the pressure of common danger, and in many instances cemented by the blood of the parties, the Officers of the American Army do hereby, in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute, and combine themselves into one Society of Friends — to endure as long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and in failure thereof, the collateral branches, who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and members.”

So, how did our city get its name? While the original name for our city was Losantiville, it changed to Cincinnati in 1790 by Mr. Arthur St. Clair, the Northwestern Territory governor. Governor St. Clair was the President of the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, explaining his deep connection to the name and its origins. 

This is not just an interesting history lesson. It should really make us think about how we serve Hashem and our community. In the “Pirkei Avot — Ethics of Our Fathers” — which, during the summer months, is customary to read a chapter weekly — it states (1:3): “Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as servants, who serve their master (Hashem) for the sake of reward. Rather, be as servants who serve their master (Hashem) not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.”

This is true Jewish leadership and community service: It should never be about the reward and compensation of the one doing the service, rather the focus needs to be on the one being served. Many of our greatest sages refused to benefit from their vast Torah knowledge and preferred to sustain their families with menial labor instead. Many spent years living incognito (with people around them being totally unaware of their true spiritual level and devotion to Torah), so that their service of Hashem would be considered pure. 

All of us who proudly proclaim that we are from Cincinnati, should reflect on the history of our name and try to incorporate more humility and sense of community service into our lives and the lives of our families and children.

Shabbat Shalom!