The Jews of Early America


constitutionThe Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports: In 1654, 23 men, women and children sailed into Dutch-occupied New York City, then known as New Amsterdam. Though eager for new residents, the sparsely populated colony did not roll out a welcome wagon.

“The Jews who have arrived here would nearly all like to remain,” the city’s director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, complained to his superiors in Holland, “but … with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians … [are] very repugnant …”

Stuyvesant denied Jews all essential rights and strictly forbade them from practicing their religion, even in private.

Jewish shareholders in the Dutch West India Trading Company, the colony’s creators, quickly intervened. Reminding company directors that the “Jewish nation” had “always striven [its] best for the Company … [losing] immense and great capital in its shares and obligations,” they asked that Jews be given “passage and residence” in the Dutch-occupied colonies “to travel, live and traffic there … and enjoy liberty on condition of contributing like others …”

Their efforts proved successful. While acknowledging that New Amsterdam might become “infected by people of the Jewish nation,” the directors ordered Mr. Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to “live and remain” in the colony.

Encouraged by their treatment in North America, more Jews soon trickled in from Europe and the Caribbean. And they prospered, serving as shopkeepers, merchants and traders.

Then the British seized New York in 1664, and the Jews were again beset with difficulties. Most towns and provinces in British America denied them the right to vote or hold public office. British citizenship was limited to those in the colonies who professed “the true faith of Christ.”

Still, colonial Jews had it pretty good; they weren’t burned at the stake, forced to convert to Christianity, expelled or denied the right to worship openly as they were in parts of Europe.

In the 1730s, New York Jews, who had worshipped communally as early as the 1650s, constructed their own synagogue, Shearith Israel, near present-day Wall Street. Philadelphia Jews owned their Spruce Street Cemetery by 1740 and a short time later worshipped at Congregation Mikveh Israel.

Read more at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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  1. I happened to come across a book of signatures that had a section on famous jewish people. One in particular I noted was an Aaron Lopez of circa 1750s or so, a merchant in Rhode Island who actually helped finance the American Revolution. Many did this. Aaron was noted because his signature was quite an amazement. Sadly they never let him be a citizen of Rhode Island and eventually he was offered citizenship in Massachusetts.

    There were a number of Jewish financeers in that era.