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Finding a New Jerusalem in America

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 2004

(The 350th anniversary of permanent Jewish settlement in America will be celebrated in 2004. In September, the Library of Congress will open a major exhibition titled “From Haven To Home: Three Hundred and Fifty Years of Jewish History in America.” Following is Part One of a two-part article exploring American Jewish life from 1492 through the colonial period.)  

The history of Jews in America dates to Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492 when Jews sailed on the first European transatlantic voyage. They also were among the first settlers in North America in the 17th century. Jews were stimulated to look abroad for economic opportunity and because of the anti-Semitism in much of Europe that included the brutal Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, pogroms in Eastern Europe, and legal discrimination of varying degrees throughout the rest of the continent. In America, Jews found a new Jerusalem, a place where they could succeed economically and socially with less discrimination than anywhere in Europe.  

Although many historians date American Jewish history to 1654 when a party of Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, Jews have been a part of America’s history for far longer. April 30, 1492, was a momentous day for Jews around the world. On that day, Spanish King Ferdinand ordered all Jews to leave Spain by the end of July and he instructed Christopher Columbus to equip a fleet for the West Indies, a voyage that would ultimately open up the Americas for European, including Jewish, settlement.  

Jews with Columbus  

When Columbus sailed from Spain on August 3, among his 120 men were several Jews. Luis de Torres, a Jew from Murcia, served as Columbus’s interpreter because he understood Hebrew, Chaldee, and some Arabic. Like many Spanish Jews he had recently been baptized as a Catholic in the hope of avoiding the brutality of the Inquisition. Alonso de Calle, whose name was derived from the “Jew’s Lane” from which he came, also served under Columbus, and died in the New World on the island of Hispaniola on May 23, 1503. Among the other Jews on the voyage were the ship’s physician, comptroller, and surgeon.  

Meyer Kayserling, the author of Christopher Columbus and the Participation of Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries, indicates that the first sailor to have spotted land may have been Hernan Perez Matheos, a Jew. The Spanish king had offered a bounty to the first sailor to see land, but Columbus claimed the bounty for himself.  

When the ships arrived at Cuba, Luis de Torres and a companion explored the interior and came upon a village, where Europeans first discovered the use of tobacco. De Torres decided to remain in Cuba. The native ruler gave him land as well as slaves-five adults and a child. He remained in Cuba until his death, perhaps because his native Spain was no longer hospitable to Jews.  

Jews, including Marranos - those Jews who converted to Catholicism but were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism, were banned from emigrating to the New World. However, with many Jews believing that the New World would be a more hospitable place, this law did not stop them. In fact, the first person to receive the king’s permission to trade in the new lands was a Jew, Juan Sanchez of Saragossa.  

Seeking Their Fortunes  

In much of Europe, Jews faced anti-Semitism and brutality causing them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere to England and Holland, which were more enlightened. Then, driven by stories of economic opportunities, some of the most adventurous went to the colonies in the outer reaches of the known world to seek their fortunes.  

The first Jews arrived in North America in the 16th and 17th century as traders and explorers. Historians dispute who was the first Jew in North America. Among the early arrivals were Joachim Gaunse or Ganz, who landed on Roanoke Island in 1585 and left one year later. Another early Jewish visitor was Solomon Franco who went to Boston in 1649 for a brief period until being “warned out.”  

In an article in Colonial Williams-burg, Mary Miley Theobald wrote about the first Jews in Virginia. She found no solid evidence as to who was the first, but she did uncover clues pointing to a number of individuals, including Elias Legardo, Joseph Moise, and Rebecca Isaacke, who arrived in Virginia in the 1620s. Another early settler who was likely Jewish was John Levy who received the title for 200 acres of land in James City County in 1648.  

First Jewish Community  

The first Jewish community in North America arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. When the Portuguese reconquered a portion of northern Brazil, Pernambuco, from the Dutch, Jews feared the return of the Inquisition and fled. Almost all of the Jews living in Pernambuco sailed from Recife, Pernambuco’s capital city, in 1654.  

One of the sixteen vessels, the Dutch schooner Valck, was intercepted by a privateer. The privateer’s captain forced the ship to land in Jamaica, which was then a Spanish possession, and stole all of the passengers’ possessions except for their clothes and furniture. Some Jews were even incarcerated by the local Inquisition. The remaining 23 Jews who were not jailed were allowed to depart with the gentile majority. The Jews were mostly Spanish or Dutch Sephardim.  

When the journey continued, the group stopped at Cape St. Anthony on the western tip of Cuba and then was taken by the French ship St. Catherine to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, where they arrived in September, 1654. When they arrived, at least one Jew, Jacob Barsimson, was already living there. Barsimson, a trader, was a Central European Ashkenazi who had arrived from Amsterdam just three weeks earlier.  

Cool Welcome  

The Jewish new arrivals were impoverished. After having been robbed, they were unable to pay their fares, and the ship’s captain auctioned off their furniture. The group also faced a cool welcome from the colony’s governor, Peter Stuyvesant. He wrote to the directors in Amsterdam of the Dutch West India Company, whose shareholders owned the colony: The Jews have arrived “with their customary usury and deceitful trading. Owing to their present indigence, they might become a charge in the coming winter. We have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing land, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart.”  

A few lines later, Stuyvesant betrayed his unfriendliness, writing that he was “Praying that the deceitful race-such hateful blasphemers of the name of Christ-be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony, to the detraction of your worships and the dissatisfaction of your worships’ most affectionate subjects.”  

The Jews also made their case to the company in Amsterdam, “Your Honors should consider that the Honorable Lords, the Burgomasters of the City [Amsterdam], and the Honorable High Illustrious Mighty Lords, the States-General, have in political matters always protected and considered the Jewish nation as upon the same footing as all the inhabitants and burghers.... Your Honors should also please consider that many of the Jewish nation are principal shareholders in the Company.”  

The Dutch West India Company disappointed Stuyvesant with its response, “We would have liked to fulfill your wishes ... but ... this would be somewhat unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss sustained by this nation [the Jews], with others, in the taking of Brazil, as also because of the large amount of capital which they still have invested in the shares of the Company. Therefore, we have decided these people may travel and trade to and in New Netherlands and live and remain there.” With this statement, Jews had the right to establish their first community in the New World.  

Early Years  

In 1655, the Jewish community swelled with the arrival of five families and three unmarried males from Holland. Although Stuyvesant attempted to establish a discriminatory regime, he was stymied by the Dutch West India company, which instituted a rule allowing Jews to own real estate, trade freely, and be spared discriminatory taxes. When Barsimson refused to appear before the magistrate on the Jewish Sabbath, he was not punished.  

Jews worked as butchers, metalworkers, importers, and peddlers. By the end of the 1650s, the Jewish community numbered about sixty. They were very involved in communal activities and fought aggressively for equality. When New Amsterdam came under Indian attack, several Jews voluntarily gave one hundred guilders each, a contribution exceeded by only Stuyvesant and four others. The Jews did face some legal barriers including being barred from standing guard instead of being required to pay a special tax. Barsimson and Asser Levy unsuccessfully fought this law in court.  

The New Amsterdam community would not be a permanent one. Seeing the ominous British power on both sides of the Dutch colony, the Jews gradually left in the 1660s. They went directly to Holland or to other Dutch colonies, including Curacao and Suriname. By 1663, only Asser Levy was left, and in 1667 Britain completed its conquest of New Netherlands, which was later divided into New York and New Jersey.  

Rights for Jews  

When the British arrived, they instituted measures granting rights for the Jews. The peace treaty between Holland and Britain guaranteed freedom of conscience to all inhabitants of the former Dutch colony. Ten years later, the British reaffirmed their policy of religious freedom when the Duke of York instructed the colony’s governor to “permit all persons of what Religion soever, quietly to inhabit ... without giving you any disturbance or disquiet whatsoever, for or by reason of their differing opinions in matter of Religion.”  

Asser Levy was one of the first prominent Jews in the New World. He was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and arrived in New York via Brazil in 1654. He had a varied career, working as a merchant, butcher, and real estate entrepreneur. He struggled to gain equal protection under the law for him and his fellow Jews. Although he was not one of the wealthiest New Yorkers, he had a servant and was comfortable. He died on February 1, 1682, in New York. New York City celebrates this first prominent Jew with an Asser Levy Place and an Asser Levy Public School.  

Sephardic Character  

The early New York Jewish community had a primarily Sephardic character, though it was divided. The Sephardim, originating from Spain and Portugal, were better educated and wealthier than the Ashkenazim coming from north, central, and eastern Europe. Eli Faber writes in A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820, “The embryonic Jewish community on Manhattan Island in 1654 thus brought together representatives of each of the two great subdivisions of the Jewish people, foreshadowing the demographic pattern that would characterize all of American Jewry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”  

Jewish emigrants came to America for a variety of reasons. Most came for economic opportunity, though Jews from the Iberian peninsula came to flee the horrors of the Inquisition, and some Jews from central and eastern Europe were driven to escape that region’s feudal restrictions. Initially, a majority of the emigrants were Sephardim, though after 1720, the Ashkenazim dominated.  

One significant difference between Jewish and Christian settlers is that Jews were largely uninterested in land. Instead, they chose trade as their primary livelihood, and they represented a significant portion of the mercantile population. By the mid-1700s, Jews accounted for about 15 percent of the colonies’ import-export firms, dealing mainly in cocoa, fur, rum, textiles, and wine. Jews used their family connections scattered throughout Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere to become effective merchants. They relied on family networks and the wider network of their coreligionists. Jewish merchants traded all around the Atlantic with contacts in the Caribbean, Britain, Europe, and up and down the East Coast. Therefore, most Jews settled in such ports as Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and New York. However, there were many exceptions, especially towards the end of the colonial period. Jews also worked as laborers, silversmiths, distillers, soap makers, etc. Jews even formed the first monopoly in America-in the candle business.  

Far-flung Contacts  

Although the New World was relatively isolated, because so many Jews were merchants, they were able to maintain far-flung contacts with relatives, coreligionists, and others. Faber writes, “The Jews of colonial America participated in a world far more expansive than their small, provincial cities in the New World. Instead of being isolated in their small towns, they had access to the resources of a large community, thereby increasing their chances for successful settlement in the American colonies. Trading, traveling, and marrying widely, their perspective embraced the entire Atlantic region, to the advantage simultaneously of their religious commitments and their worldly interests. And yet, concurrently with their outward, cosmopolitan gaze, they tended as well to their immediate surroundings, diligently working to establish flourishing Jewish communities in the New World.”  

Jews’ mercantile talents were a significant benefit for the colonies. In The Land That I Show You: Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America, Stanley Feldstein notes, “Despite their small number, Jews made a significant contribution to colonial economic development. They helped build the cities, civilize the frontier, and provide the commercial means to unite the provinces. Indeed, Joseph Addison was correct, in 1712, when he spoke of colonial Jewry as ‘the pegs and nails in a great building, which, though they are but little value in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.’”  

Gravitated Towards Trade Centers  

Most Jews came from middle class European families and when they arrived in America they gravitated towards trade centers. Doris Groshen Daniels writes in the American Jewish Historical Quarterly, “The typical Colonial American Jew, therefore was generally a middle class urbanite, in some form of trade, and anxious to move up socially and economically.” By the middle of the eighteenth century in addition to New York, port cities such as Savannah, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia all had growing Jewish settlements.  

New York  

In the early years in New York, the Jews banded together, settling near Whitehall Street. Later they moved to Mill Street, which was later called “Jew Street.” On Mill Street, they built their synagogue in 1728 after the New York Jews appealed to their coreligionists in London, Jamaica, Curacao, Barbados and throughout the colonies. One letter read: “We have already purchased an appropriate site for the edifice [sic] and another for the cemetery, but for want of sufficient means, the Yehudim [Jews] here being but few, we have not been able to carry out our intention.”  

It took the Jewish community almost 75 years to build its first synagogue. This delay was not because of poverty so much as transiency. There were many wealthy Jews in America, but they were often traveling merchants unprepared to set down roots.  

The New York Jewish community continued to grow with new immigrants attracted by the opportunities the port city offered in commerce. One of the early prominent merchants was Hayman Levy who became the colonies’ biggest fur trader. Indians lined up outside his New York warehouse to sell their furs. When he died in 1763, he was by far the richest Jew in North America.  

New England  

New England, which was a relatively well populated area with many small towns had just one Jewish community before the nineteenth century. Writing in the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, Ian Rosenswaike notes, “Prior to the American Revolution only an occasional Jewish itinerant appeared in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut and the few who took up permanent residence gradually merged with the general population.”  

With parts of New England initially hostile, Jews found the renegade colony of Rhode Island to be ripe for settlement. The first Jews arrived in Newport from the West Indies in the 1650s, most likely from Barbados. The approximately fifteen families represented the first Jewish settlement in an English colony on the North American mainland. They were attracted to Rhode Island because of its reputation for religious toleration in contrast to the demanded religious uniformity in Massachusetts and Connecticut enforced by flogging, fines, banishment, and even death. Rhode Island had a reputation as a haven for dissenters, having been founded in 1636 by Reverend Roger Williams who had to flee Massachusetts after disagreements with the colony’s clergy.  

After Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688, a more tolerant regime took over in the colonies, and Jewish traders in Massachusetts and Connecticut received better treatment. They were allowed to settle, and take part in aspects of civic life including testifying in court and occasionally serving as constables.  

Newport, in no small part due to its Jewish merchants, became one of America’s most bustling trading centers by the American Revolution. George Mason gave a mixed report on the Jewish community in his Reminiscences of Newport, “The Jews ... were not only noted for their knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry, enterprise, and probity.... They were neither good sailors nor good soldiers; nor did they appear to be very fond of books. Moses Lopez and Jacob Joseph, it is true, were numbered among the founders of the Redwood Library, and ... Jacob Rodriguez Rivera was a stockholder in that institution; but this may be taken as one of the many evidences of their desire to promote whatever promised to be a public benefit.”  

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland  

By 1656 Jews were permitted to live in Quaker Pennsylvania and Anglican New Jersey. Pennsylvania had one of the largest Jewish communities, numbering about 250 people in 1790. The bulk of the Jewish population lived in Philadelphia.  

Maryland had few Jews until the end of the American Revolution, largely because these colonies did not have urban centers with substantial middle classes, which would have been suitable environments for a merchant. Its small Jewish population was mostly concentrated in Baltimore, which had approximately thirty Jews in 1790. Outside of Baltimore, there was only one household or family head in Frederick County and Washington County.  

Initially, Maryland had a Catholic majority, but by the mid-1600s, it adopted the religion of its Protestant majority and discriminated against non-Protestants.  


When Richmond was chartered in 1782, it had no more than six identifiable Jews. The great temptation for Jews in Virginia was assimilation. They were largely accepted into Virginia society and the community was so small that many Jews lost their faith through intermarriage.  

Theobald, writes, “Jews were welcomed into early Virginia society at all levels. These were people who got involved. They led charitable associations, started up schools and banks, became active in civic affairs, joined the Masons, served in the military, and were elected or appointed to government office. Mainstream society absorbed them, First Families of Virginia married them - and no one so much as raised an eyebrow.”  

Despite the lack of a large Jewish community, there were some individual Jews who worked as planters, traders, and in other professions. One of the most prominent colonial Virginia Jews was John de Sequeyra, a doctor living in Williamsburg. Born to a prominent London doctor of Portuguese descent, Sequeyra received his education at the University of Leiden, graduating with a medical degree in 1739. When he arrived in Virginia in 1745, he was quickly welcomed by the planter aristocracy.  

In addition to being a respected leader in the treatment of mental patients, Sequeyra also saw a number of prominent private patients. He attended to George Washington’s epileptic stepdaughter Patsy in 1769. A year later he attended to Lord Botetourt during his fatal illness. In 1773 Sequeyra was selected to be the first visiting physician to the Public Hospital for the Insane, a respected position that he held until he died in 1795. From 1774 until his death he was also a member of the hospital’s board of directors.  

South Carolina and Georgia  

South Carolina was an attractive destination for Jews because it had one of the colonies’ largest ports in Charleston and was founded under a charter embodying John Locke’s liberal political ideas. During the colonial era, South Carolina had the second largest Jewish community.  

Jews arrived in the colony in 1680, and from the beginning they were free to worship as they liked, a right denied to Catholics. By 1710, there were enough Jews in the colony to hold a religious service. Most South Carolinian Jews were identified as merchants. Although it was founded early, the Jewish community grew slowly. It was not until 1750 that the synagogue Beth Elohim was established. By 1790, there were approximately 200 Jews in Charleston. By 1800, Charleston’s synagogue was the largest in the nation.  

Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary Dale Palsson write in Jews in the South that South Carolina had the best record of treatment towards Jews and was the first state where a Jew was elected to office by his Christian neighbors.  


Several influential members of London’s Sephardic community - Alvaro Lopez Suasso, Francis Salvador, and Anthony Da Costa - raised money to help poor London Jews migrate to Georgia, which was being established as a buffer zone between wealthy South Carolina and Spanish Florida. The London Bevis Marks Synagogue was eager to no longer be responsible for indigent Jews who had recently arrived from Eastern Europe. As a result, on July 11, 1733, thirty-two Sephardim and nine Ashkenazim arrived in Savannah.  

Savannah’s synagogue, Mickve Israel, was established at the time of settlement in 1733. However, services were discontinued in 1740 when much of the community left for Charleston. The congregation was not reestablished until 1790 when Georgia had about 100 Jews. Georgia law barred Jews from voting, but by the middle of the 18th century, they were participating in elections. In 1765, two Savannah Jews were elected port officials of that city.  

The West  

Jews were also involved in western exploration. In the 1770s, the three Hart brothers of Kentucky joined Richard Henderson, a North Carolina judge, to form the Transylvania Company. “In a treaty with the Cherokee nation, the partners bartered ten thousand pounds of merchandise for the twenty-million-acre stretch of Kentucky south of the Kentucky River. A Hart employee, the frontiersman Daniel Boone, recruited a Jewish lad as his assistant, one Samuel Sanders, who had been convicted in a London court of ‘clipping coins’ and deported to Virginia Colony for seven years’ servitude. Sanders became a son to Boone, who had lost his own son in an Indian attack two years earlier. Eventually Sanders, too, was captured by a Shawnee tribe; he chose to marry and remain among them,” Howard M. Sachar writes in A History of Jews in America.  

Colonial Life  

At the end of the 17th century, there were just 250 Jews out of a white population of 80,000. By the American Revolution, there were only approximately 2,000-2,500 Jews out of a total colonial population of about 2.5 million. Because of these demographic realities and because of the generally enlightened attitude taken towards Jews in the colonies, they were very well integrated in their communities and led their lives in the same way as the other American colonists.  

“Perhaps the most significant factors that enabled Jews to deculturate as easily as they did were the lack of institutional and legislative restrictions in America. Contrary to European practice, the colonial provinces were without a kahal, ghettos or medieval legislation that forbade Jews to socialize with Christians. Colonial Jews shaved their beards, cut their earlocks, dressed in the latest fashions, purchased land, socialized with Christians, and participated in all forms of community activity. Above all, though devoted to a specific Jewish life-style, they developed no all-embracing Jewish culture. Under these circumstances, American Jewry was free to modify or exchange the European modes for American manners and mobility,” Feldstein writes.  

One example of how well integrated Jews were was their involvement in civic activities and philanthropy. Feldstein writes, “It was not unusual to find Newport Jewry uniting with their Christian neighbors to build a college or a hospital. Jews gave freely of their time and money to erect libraries in New York, maintain militias and form companies in Pennsylvania, and promote public works in Delaware. In addition to their concern for civic improvements, Jews demonstrated their eagerness to ‘belong’ through philanthropic activities.”  

Philanthropic Role  

Among the causes they contributed to were Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania hospital and the College of Philadelphia. They even helped Christians in their efforts to build houses of worship. They helped fund the construction of a Lutheran sanctuary in New York and Manhattan’s Trinity Church. Feldstein writes, “The Jewish philanthropic effort was hardly isolated or exceptional, but part of a pattern.”  

Jews represented a tiny minority in the colonies, and the Protestant majority believed a greater threat came from the Catholic community than from the Jewish one. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, New York’s Jews were worshipping openly, voting in elections, and serving on juries and as executors of estates. In 1718, Jews served as constables in three of New York’s seven wards. By the middle of the 1700s, Jews enjoyed most of the political rights afforded to the Protestant majority, a status far better than that of New York’s early Catholic community.  

Feldsten argues that because Jews never constituted a threat to the Protestant majority they were better off than Catholics or blacks. Jews “had the advantage of not being black, and due to their experience with the Inquisition, could hardly be considered sympathetic to Catholicism. In a nation one-fifth black and which preferred not to be inundated by ‘papists,’ Jews were accorded total or nearly total equality.”  

Scope of Toleration  

In 1740, the British parliament enacted a naturalization law for the American colonies, which clearly showed the scope of toleration for Jews in the New World. In the preamble of the law, parliament noted that the strength and wealth of the nation was directly related to the growth of its population. The act offered citizenship to both Protestants and Jews who had lived in the colonies for seven years, without having been absent for more than two months during that period. To qualify, applicants would normally have to swear allegiance to the Crown “upon the true faith of a Christian.” However, parliament allowed Jews to take the oath without those seven words.  

Freest Jews on Earth  

Sachar writes, “Unlike the restrictions imposed on Catholics, not a single law ever was enacted in British North America specifically to disable Jews. To be sure, in England, and in the Netherlands too, Jews enjoyed considerable religious and even political freedom. Nevertheless, they were much better off in the New World than in the Old. They were free not only to engage in any trade, in any colony, but also to own a home in any neighborhood. In New York and Rhode Island, Jews could attend university (an all-but-unimaginable boon in Europe). Their neighbors at worst were suspicious or unfriendly, but few taunted them, and instances of physical molestation were quite rare. By 1776, the two thousand Jews of colonial America unquestionably were the freest Jews on earth.”  

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