Author Topic: Early American Jewish History  (Read 1540 times)

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Early American Jewish History
« on: September 17, 2007, 11:46:39 PM »
The 23 exiles from Recife that sailed to The West Indies and then to The Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, were robbed on the way by pirates. The penniless group arrived in New Amsterdam in September of 1654. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, told them they had to leave. He allowed them to stay while he awaited instructions from Amsterdam. He was instructed that they be allowed to stay because the Jews of Recife had fought for Holland, and because The Dutch West India Company had many Jewish shareholders. This was "provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation".


Stuyvesant and his council did not favor these instructions. He denied The Jews the right to stand guard with the colony's other residents and forced them to pay a special tax. When 2 Jew, Jacob Barsimson and Asher Levy took legal action, this policy was abandoned. Other Jews soon filed legal petitions demanding the right to buy homes, to trade, and to enjoy full rights.


3 years after landing, The Jews were granted full citizenship. They still didn't have every civil right. They weren't allowed to build a synagogue and required to "exercise in all quietness their religion within their houses". They still had to petition the government when they faced restrictions in trade or professions.


In 1657, Asher Levy became the first Jew in New Amsterdam and in the entire North America to enjoy the full rights of citizenship. He purchased a plot of land on William Street which is now in the heart of the Wall Street financial district. He was also allowed to become one of its 6 licensed butchers.


When The British captured New Amsterdam and renamed it New York in 1664, Asher Levy expanded his business enterprises. He also bought a house on Mill Street which was used as the first synagogue, and became home to Congregation Shearit Israel, which had beed meeting in private homes. Mill Street Synagogue was erected in 1730. Shearit Israel to this day still follows Minhag Sfarad since the earliest American Jews were Sfardic. By 1750, however, half of the 300 Jews of New York were Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe. One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in The United States is The Chatham Square Cemetery which is also in New York and was founded in 1656.


During The 18th Century, a small amount of Jews came to America from Europe settling in Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and other cities along The East Coast. In Philadelphia, they founded Congregation Mikveh Israel, which follows Minhag Sfarad. Rhode Island was a favorite destination since it was founded as an outpost of religious freedom. Among the prominent Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, was Aaron Lopez, the son of an old Marrano family in Lisbon, who became a wealthy merchant shipper in The New World. Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport, known as The Touro Synagogue in honor of Isaac Touro, its first spiritual leader, is the oldest synagogue building remaining in The New World. It was supported for many years by Judah Touro.


By the time of The Revolutionary War, there were about 3,000 Jews in the British colonies. Many of them fought for the patriotic cause. Francis Salvador, a Jewish planter born in England, was chosen a member of the provincial congress in South Carolina in 1774. He died in 1776 in one of the first battles of the war. Benjamin Nones came from France to fight in the the war since he believed it represented the battle for freedeom and human rights. He was promoted to the rank of major and was later a legislator in the new country.


When The British occupied New York and Newport, supporters of the American cause were in danger of imprisonment. Minister of Shearit Israel, Gershom Mendes Seixas was such a patriot that he had to flee New York when the British troops landed. He took the Torah scrolls with him and re-established the congregation in Stratford, Connecticut, and then set up Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. He was honored after the war in New York as a leading religious figure and took part in George Washington's Presidential inauguration. He also served as a trustee of Columbia College. Isaac Touro and many members of his synagogue fled from Newport when the British arrived. Aaron Lopez left his wealth and settled in a small town in Massachusetts until the patriot forces were victorious rather than collaborate with The British. Many Non-Jews arrived from Europe to help The Americans including Baron Johann de Kalb from Germany who died in action and commanded a unit of 400 men. So many of the men in his unit were Jews that it was sometimes called the Jewish regiment.


Most Canadian colonists stayed loyal to England, but a few of them sympathized with The Americans. A Canadian Jew from Montreal, Salisbury Franks, was arrested for making a remark about a statue of King George III and after he was released he joined The American Army.


Haym Salomon, a Jewish broker from Poland that came to New York in 1772, was imprisoned for supporting the revolutionary cause but managed to escape to Philadelphia. He worked there with Robert Morris who was the superintendent of finance. They extended loans and arranged credit to pay for the costs of the war.