A History of Jews in the United States

A chronicle of the turning points in the 350-year history of Jews in America.

The first Jewish settlers sail to American shores.

Unlike previous Jewish travelers (such as Bohemian Jewish metallurgist Joachim Gaunse, who was sent to Roanoke Island in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh), the approximately twenty-three Jewish arrivals who fled Recife, Brazil and disembarked in New Amsterdam in 1654 sought a permanent home--a place where they could "travel," "trade," "live," and "remain"--following the Portuguese recapture of the Dutch colony. "1654 has become a symbolic date," explains Dr. Gary Zola. "The refugees immediately encountered hostility [such as Peter Stuyvesant's assertion to the Dutch West India Company that they are 'a deceitful race, hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ'] and fought for opportunity--a dynamic that is emblematic of the whole flow of American Jewish history." One year later, the Dutch West India Company, dependent on Jewish investors, granted the New Amsterdam Jews the right to settle, provided that "the poor among them shall...be supported by their own nation."

About fifty to sixty Spanish and Portuguese Jews build North America's first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, on Mill Street in New York City.

The only New York City synagogue until 1825, Congregation Shearith Israel served the area's entire Jewish community, offering Sephardic and Ashkenazic men and women traditional services, religious education, and kosher meat as well as Passover provisions. "Even more than the arrival of Jews," says Professor Deborah Dash Moore, "the establishment of this synagogue bespeaks a concern for the perpetuation of Jewish lives and community."

[1787 & 1791]
Following the American Revolution--a war in which at least 100 American Jews are known to have fought--the US Constitution and Bill of Rights are enacted, granting Jews equality under the law.

"The Federal Constitution [1787] and the Bill of Rights [1791] outlawed religious tests as qualification to any office or public trust and forbade Congress from making any law 'respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...,'" explains Professor Jonathan Sarna. "Jews thereby gained their religious rights in the United States (and in most but not all of the separate states), not through a special privilege or 'Jew bill' that set them apart as a group, but as individuals along with everybody else. Thus, by the end of the 18th century, Jews had achieved an unprecedented degree of 'equal footing' in America."

The first president of the United States warmly addresses a synagogue--the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.

In a letter to the congregation, George Washington proclaimed that liberty is "an inherent natural right" and assured the community that the US government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." "George Washington's letter affirmed that America would be a place where Jews were welcomed as equals," says Rabbi David Ellenson, "and it reaffirmed the notion of tolerance as an American ideal."

Jewish reformers in Charleston, South Carolina petition the leaders of Congregation Beth Elohim for major changes in the Sabbath service (a shorter service, English translations of Hebrew prayers, a weekly sermon in English), and when the petition is denied, they start a new congregation guided by modern religious principles.

Determined to replace "blind observance of the ceremonial law" with "true piety...the first great object of our Holy Religion," the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit would go on to publish America's first Reform Jewish prayer book, The Sabbath Service and Miscellaneous Prayers Adopted by the Reformed Society of Israelites. "For the first time, American Jews could choose from a variety of congregations," says Jonathan Sarna, "and not just the traditionalist strategy of the 'established' Sephardic congregations. Moreover, Jews who did not feel at home in synagogue no longer had to compromise their principles for the sake of consensus; they felt free to withdraw and start their own congregations. In free and democratic America, congregational autonomy largely became the rule, resulting in a new American Judaism--a Judaism of diversity and pluralism."

Rebecca Gratz, the most prominent Jewish woman in America, founds the first Hebrew Sunday school.

After playing an instrumental role in forming Philadelphia's nondenominational Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, Gratz, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, then turned her attention to education--and her efforts led to the creation of the Jewish Sunday-school movement. "Where would we be without it?" says Gary Zola. "To this day, the majority of children receive their Jewish education in Sunday school and other forms of supplementary instruction." In addition, says Jonathan Sarna, "Gratz's Sunday school transformed the role of women in American Judaism by making them responsible for the religious education and spiritual guidance of the young. By the time Gratz died, in 1869, most American Jews who received any formal Jewish education at all likely learned most of what they knew from female teachers. These teachers, in turn, had to educate themselves about Judaism...."

Har Sinai, Reform Judaism's second congregation, holds its first service in Baltimore as a wave of Jewish immigration arrives from Central Europe.

Har Sinai's decision to follow the more traditional Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in placing a six-pointed Magen David (Star of David) in the windows of its new building served as a proud proclamation of Jewishness in America. German Jews would create dozens of other landmark synagogues during this decade, among them B'nai Yeshurun (later Wise Temple) in Cincinnati (1842) and Temple Emanu-El in New York City (1845). "The young, urban, upwardly mobile lay worshipers [at Emanu-El] aimed to attract young people, heighten religious devotion, and help Jews to 'occupy a position of greater respect' among their fellow citizens," says Jonathan Sarna. "[Emanu-El's] bold worship changes--German hymns, a sermon, an abbreviated service, and organ music--set a pattern that other Reform congregations emulated."

Twelve German Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York establish B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant), America's first Jewish fraternal society, as a means of proliferating Judaism through peoplehood and culture, rather than religiosity or faith.

"In the past," explains Jonathan Sarna, "each community's synagogues had provided all the services Jews needed, including nurturing the sick, supporting widows and orphans, and assisting visitors from out of town. But now, each community had multiple synagogues that competed with one another. B'nai B'rith (and its sister organization, the United Order of True Sisters) argued that fraternal ties--the covenant (b'rith) that bound Jews together regardless of religious ideology--could bring about 'union and harmony.'" As a result, for the first time, American Jews were presented with an alternative to the synagogue.

Isaac Leeser, the hazzan of Philadelphia's Congregation Mikveh Israel, establishes the Jewish Publication Society, and, in so doing, demonstrates the power of the printed word in preserving Judaism in America.

"JPS set the stage for other Jewish publication houses and literary works," says Gary Zola. "Without a venue for promoting scholarship, literature, and Jewish writing, the Jewish community could not have become a great Jewish center."

In response to a perceived lack of American Jewish unity in the face of political turmoil, twenty-four mostly Ashkenazic congregations, led by Shaaray Tefilla of New York and Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, form the Board of Delegates of American Israelites "to keep a watchful eye on all occurrences at home and abroad."

A year earlier, 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara of Italy was taken from his home and handed over to the Catholic Church after it was discovered he had been secretly baptized by his nursemaid. A Catholic in Italy could not legally be raised by Jews, even his own parents. Despite numerous petitions from various American Jewish groups, President James Buchanan refused to intervene, stating that the US should not meddle in the affairs of other independent governments. Believing that their appeal had failed because of their own disorganization, Jewish leaders established a Board of Delegates, modeling it on the influential Jewish Board of Deputies in London--but due to communal infighting, only a small fraction of the synagogues in America participated. Nonetheless, says Gary Zola, "the Board's creation demonstrated the early determination of American Jewry to use their political influence at home to defend embattled Jews anywhere."

Jews take their case to the White House after Major General Ulysses S. Grant orders the expulsion of Jews from his war zone for alleged smuggling and cotton speculation, and threatens those who would return with arrest and confinement.

After meeting with Cesar Kaskel, a Jew from Paducah, Kentucky, and Cincinnati Congressman John A. Gurley, President Abraham Lincoln commanded Army General Henry Halleck to revoke Grant's order. In a subsequent meeting with Jewish leaders, President Lincoln declared: "To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners." "This was a dramatic demonstration of Jewish self-confidence," says Pamela Nadell. "Jews now had access to the President of the United States." Adds Jonathan Sarna: "This episode empowered Jews with the knowledge that they could fight back against bigotry and win--even against a prominent general."

German immigrant Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founds the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, followed by the first viable rabbinical seminary in America--the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (1875)--and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889).

"Rabbi Wise traveled the length and breadth of the country, preaching, dedicating new synagogues, and spreading the gospel of Jewish religious reform wherever he went," says Jonathan Sarna. "Ultimately, the goal of unifying all American Jews eluded him, but he did succeed in advancing, institutionalizing, and orchestrating American Reform Judaism." Other American Jewish denominational movements later adapted Rabbi Wise's model--a synagogue umbrella organization, rabbinic seminary, and rabbinic association--that would shape the framework of organized Jewish religious life in America. "It was the creation of those Jewish seminaries that marked the first training of indigenous Jewish leadership in America," explains Deborah Dash Moore. "There was a growing Jewish consciousness that America had certain requisites that were foreign to the European experience; instead of continuing the practice of recruiting leaders from Europe, Jews were beginning to fashion what could be called an American Judaism."

The mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe begins, and transforms American Jewry.

Pogroms sweeping through Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II set off an epochal migration that would bring to America some two million Eastern European Jews whose cultural and religious traditions differed profoundly from those of the Central European Jews now comfortably settled in America. "As these immigrants Americanized, their religious needs changed," says Jonathan Sarna. "Like the Central European Jews before them, they sought a more 'refined' worship experience, more in keeping with their rising status in society....[They] bid for religious equality by making a grand entrance onto the American religious stage. Their great synagogues and cantors proclaimed their Americanization, their heightened self-confidence, and their rising station in society."

Henrietta Szold establishes Hadassah--which over time becomes the largest American Zionist organization and the largest women's organization in the United States.

The daughter of Rabbi Benjamin Szold, a spiritual leader of Congregation Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold would play a pivotal role in the politicization of American Jewish women. On February 24, 1912, thirty-eight women constituted themselves as the Hadassah Chapter of Daughters of Zion; two years later, at their first convention, Szold was elected first president. Says Deborah Dash Moore: "Hadassah recruited several generations of American Jewish women to political and social action on behalf of the Yishuv and Israel."

American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis becomes the first Jewish Supreme Court justice.

"Brandeis' appointment," says Gary Zola, "marked a pivotal moment for American Jews, who took deep pride in the achievements of one of their own and saw that Jews could rise to the highest levels of American society." "It was clear," adds Pamela Nadell, "a Jew who identifies with Jewish causes could ascend to the highest levels of government, serving the American people and our nation."

Mordecai M. Kaplan, a Lithuanian-born professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes one of the most influential Jewish books of the 20th century, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life.

Articulating a new conception of Judaism that set the stage for the creation of a new movement--Reconstructionist Judaism--Kaplan taught that Judaism is not only a religion but a dynamic religious civilization that, according to Jonathan Sarna, embraced "every Jew and everything Jewish, including land (meaning Israel), history, language, literature, religious folkways, mores, laws, and art." Two of Kaplan's ideas became commonplace across the spectrum of American Jewish religious life, he says. First, "Kaplan's emphasis on 'the whole life of the Jew' stimulated greater attention to such previously neglected aspects of Jewish life as arts, crafts, music, drama, dance, and food--and over time, cultural programs became part of the life of almost every synagogue and Jewish community. Second, his championing of a synagogue-center designed to turn the house of worship into a seven-days-a-week multipurpose hub of Jewish communal life set the pattern for what became the synagogue-center movement."

Four chaplains--a Catholic priest (John P. Washington), a Dutch Reform minister (Clark V. Poling), a Methodist reverend (George L. Fox), and a Reform rabbi (Alexander D. Goode)--perish at sea as heroes after their convoy ship is torpedoed by the Germans.

Inspiring the men with courage in the face of calamity, the chaplains relinquished their life vests and stood arm in arm praying as the Dorchester sank beneath the waves. "Their concerted action was a great symbolic moment," says Deborah Dash Moore, "articulating to the body public the common values that Jews, Protestants, and Catholics all share."

Serving in the US armed forces during World War II is a transforming generational experience for a half-million Jewish GIs.

In many ways, says Deborah Dash Moore, this experience was a watershed event in the "coming-of-age" of American Jews. "Jewish soldiers came out of the war more American and more Jewish. They had learned when pushed to push back, and this meant they were no longer ready to accept second-class citizenship: they were ready to fight for their rights as Jews against discrimination and for a Jewish state; they recognized that the United States accepted Judaism as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition; and they got to know other Americans in other parts of the US and realized they could settle and integrate beyond the constraints of their childhood homes."

The United States joins thirty-two other nations in the UN vote calling for the partition of Palestine into two states--one Jewish, one Arab.

The State of Israel declares its independence one year later. Jews around the world felt "pride and relief," says Jenna Weissman Joselit. "Everything before Israel's birth had been so bleak; this event was a great moment of promise." "Zionists gave American Jews (as well as other Diaspora communities) a sense of mission," adds Jonathan Sarna, "and an objective to rally around."

A group of Jewish communal leaders establishes America's first Jewish-sponsored nonsectarian university: Brandeis, in Waltham, Massachusetts.

While some early supporters of the school believed that Brandeis would guarantee an excellent higher education to the best Jewish minds in America (who might otherwise be deprived because of admissions quotas), Brandeis' first president, Abram L. Sachar, envisioned the university as "a corporate gift of Jews to higher education." Indeed, says Gary Zola, "today, Jews and non-Jews from around the world study together in a first-rate academic institution that is identified with the highest intellectual aspirations of American Jewry."

Will Herberg's bestseller Protestant-Catholic-Jew asserts that America is a "triple melting pot" comprised of these three religiously based communities.

"Though Jews constituted but 3.2 percent of the total American population, they found themselves, thanks to Herberg, 'enfranchised as the guardians of one-third of the American religious heritage,'" says Jonathan Sarna. "For all of its manifest inadequacies, Herberg's argument captured the imagination and shaped subsequent religious discourse in America."

Jews play a prominent role in the civil rights march on Washington, DC.

Speaking from the podium immediately before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, American Jewish Congress president and march co-organizer Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community under the Hitler regime, challenged the strategy of Jews who had proposed to work quietly behind the scenes to effect change; instead, he called for vigorous Jewish communal action. "For Prinz and those who followed in his footsteps," says Jonathan Sarna, "the Holocaust served not only as a universal reference point that underscored the moral righteousness of antiracist activism but also as a Jewish reference point, providing a specifically Jewish rationale for involvement in the civil rights movement." UAHC President Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jewish leaders and activists would travel to the South to protest racial injustice; and in 1964, the texts of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both drafted at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

Sandy Koufax refuses to pitch in the first game of the Dodgers-Minnesota World Series because it is held on Yom Kippur.

"Koufax's refusal to pitch gave American Jews a deep sense of pride in their Jewishness," says David Ellenson. "Here, one of the greatest baseball players in the United States was standing up and proclaiming his Jewish identity and practice to the world. The image of the Jew as independent, loyal to his faith, and unafraid to assert his values was then and still remains a source of great pride."

Amidst fears of another Holocaust as Arab nations threaten to drive Israel into the sea, American Jews raise $430 million for the Jewish state.

The Six-Day War ends with a decisive Israeli triumph. "For many American Jews, Israel's victory meant more than Superman-like heroism," says Jonathan Sarna. "It was widely perceived as a victory for America itself." Adds David Ellenson: "This sudden and seemingly miraculous victory, coming two decades after the Holocaust, gave American Jews a collective sigh of relief and a feeling of almost infinite pride. The Jew was no longer a victim."

Sally Jane Priesand, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, becomes the first American woman to be ordained a rabbi.

Two years later, Sandy Eisenberg would become the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi; Amy Eilberg would become the first woman Conservative rabbi in 1985. "Opening up the rabbinate to women redefined the nature of the rabbinate, showing that women were just as qualified as men," explains Jenna Weissman Joselit. "It also changed American Jewish life, leading to linguistic changes in prayers--God is no longer rendered in terms of the Lord, and there are all sorts of allusions to the matriarchs--and much more."

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is built adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Established to preserve the memory of the Shoah and chartered by a unanimous Act of Congress, the US government museum has since educated nearly two million visitors each year about the history of the Holocaust and the perils of intolerance. "The Holocaust museum links a Jewish story and a human story with an American story," says Gary Zola. "And it speaks to lingering questions that haunt a great many American Jews: Did Americans--Jews and non-Jews--do enough as the calamity unfolded?"

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut becomes the first Jew to be nominated for US vice president by a major political party.

"Lieberman's warm reception by the American public sent the message that a Jew need not sacrifice his/her faith or religious practices in order to aspire to high political office," says Jonathan Sarna. In short, adds David Ellenson, "the Al Gore/Joseph Lieberman ticket demonstrated how well-entrenched and at home Jews are in the United States."

Congress adopts a resolution honoring and recognizing the 350th anniversary of Jewish communal life in North America and establishing The Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History--a joint effort of the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

"This historic partnership marks the first time in our nation's history that such a collaboration [of governmental and Jewish institutions] has taken place in a common effort to advance our understanding of the American Jewish experience," says Gary Zola. "In a sense, it marks the 'coming of age' of American Jewish history."

This timeline is based on conversations with six prominent Jewish American scholars: Dr. Gary Zola, an associate professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives; Professor Pamela Nadell of American University, an expert on women's history; Rabbi David Ellenson, a professor of Jewish religious thought and the president of HUC-JIR; Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit of Princeton University, a cultural historian of Jewish life; Professor Deborah Dash Moore of Vassar College, who specializes in 20th-century urban American Jewish history; and Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, whose 2004 book American Judaism: A History won the National Jewish Book Award's Everett Family Foundation Book of the Year.

Philip Mandelbaum is the entertainment editor of Wrap Magazine and a reporter and photographer for The Ridgefield Press.