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Marking Noah's vision for Grand Island; In 1825, he sought to create refuge for Jewish people

Mordecai M. Noah launched his quixotic vision for a Jewish refuge city located on Grand Island with the sort of pageantry usually reserved for military victories.

Noah rode atop a horse, leading a procession of 1,000 people on Sept. 15, 1825, through downtown Buffalo. Cannons were fired. The choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church greeted the parade participants with a mighty anthem.

It was all for the dedication of a 300-pound stone that was supposed to mark the site of Ararat, a city that Noah envisioned being built on Grand Island as a temporary safe haven for persecuted Jews from around the world, until they could be restored in their historical home of Palestine.

The stone marker survives to this day and is housed in the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum.

Noah's dream was ignored -- and in some cases ridiculed -- by the European Jews he was hoping to help, and the grandiose idea never went anywhere. He and Ararat are now largely forgotten bits of fascinating local history.

But on Sunday, local Jewish community leaders and members of St. Paul's Cathedral gathered to pay tribute to Noah and to remember the extraordinary events of that Thursday morning in 1825.

The church erected a new historical marker in its Cathedral Park between Main and Pearl streets to commemorate a history of ecumenical and interfaith cooperation, including its prominent role as host for the Ararat dedication ceremony.

As few as 10,000 Jews lived in the United States, and the Rev. Addison Searle's opening of the church to Noah amounted to a radical act of hospitality.

"Some [historical] sources have said Rev. Searle got in trouble for letting a Jew speak from the pulpit," said Wayne Mori, cathedral archivist.

Mori organized the Noah marker along with Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization.

Noah was a New York City newspaperman, politician and U.S. diplomat. And no matter how obscure it seems now, Noah's idea remains a uniquely American story because of its underpinnings of religious freedom, said Klinger.

New York State gained possession of Grand Island from Canada in 1815, and Noah likely figured that the Erie Canal's completion would help his planned settlement prosper.

Even though many Jews across Europe were second-class citizens in their own countries, Noah wasn't able to persuade them to come to Western New York.

Rabbis rejected Noah's plan because prevailing theology called for the restoration of the Jewish people only through God's intervention, said Klinger.

Ultimately, it's unlikely Noah even stepped foot on Grand Island. St. Paul's became involved because Noah couldn't get people across the river to the island for the stone dedication, and he needed a space large enough in Buffalo to accommodate everyone.

While he has been derided in some historical sources as a self-promoting land speculator, Noah was simply a man ahead of his time, according to Klinger, who compared Noah to Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Herzl's ideas initially were rejected by international rabbinic leaders, as well, but his activism later led to the creation of Israel.

"What Theodor Herzl experienced, Noah experienced," Klinger said.