Jewish Historical Tid-Bits: Manhattan Part I


The beginnings of the first Jewish congregation in North America, Congregation Shearith Israel, go back to shortly after the settlement of the first Jewish pilgrims in 1654, when the Jews, forbidden to hold public religious services, congregated in their homes. The first Jewish cemetery, no longer existent, was established in 1656. The congregation was Sephardic, and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were in the majority for about 40 years. As early as 1695, however, the Jewish community was already about half Sephardic, half Ashkenazic, contrary to the popular belief that New York Jewry in colonial times was decidedly Sephardic. This belief may have arisen from the fact that the Sephardic ritual was maintained in the synagogue.

In 1682, the second Jewish cemetery in New York was purchased. Known as the Chatham Square Cemetery, it is the second oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the U.S. today, antedated only by the cemetery in New Port, R.I.

One of the first Jews to serve in the military in British North America was Joseph Isacks, who took part in King William's War (1689-1697). Isacks enlisted in the militia before 1690. Whether he marched north with the invaders or stayed to guard the town is not known. By trade, Isacks was a butcher, but unlike Asser Levy, the butcher of earlier years, he was not very successful.

On December 19, 1728, several leaders of the congregation acquired a small piece of land on Mill Street, and in 1730 the first synagogue building in North America was dedicated. By 1729, Ashkenazic Jews constituted a majority of the congregants, and the presidency passed into the hands of a "German" Jew, Jacob Franks, a prominent merchant and a member of the Jewish family which was most active in army contracting during colonial days.

Hayman Levy, a merchant who sold army good in a store on Bayard Street during the French and Indian War, commissioned privateers, and traded in furs with the Indians, was elected president of the congregation in September 1756, but refused to accept office, probably becuse of his business responsibilities. In 1767, he was acting president, however, and after the Revolution was president when the religious community started life anew.

In 1768, the 22 year old Gershom Mendes Seixas was elected Hazzan of the congregation to succeed Joseph Jessurun Pinto. Seixas thus became the first native-born Jewish minister in America.

In 1825, the more rcently arrived Ashkenazim, finding the Sephardic ritual unsuited to their needs, seceded from Shearith Israel and formed Congregation B'nai Jeshurun. Then followed a series of secessions. In 1828, a number of Jews left B'nai Jeshurun to organize the Anshe Chesed synagogue. Seven years later Congregation Ohabey Zedekwas created. In 1839, some members of both B'nai Jeshurun and Anshe Chesed joined forces to form Shaarey Zedek. That same year, a group of German Jews left Anshe Chesed to round Shaarey Hashamayim, and in 1842, another body of German Jews, withdrawing from the same synagogue, organized Rodeph Sholom. The next year, Beth Israel was formed by secessionists from Shaarey Zedek. Not long afterward, the founders of B'nai Jeshurun withdrew and formed Shaarey Tefila (now the West End Synagogue).

By 1860, there were said to be 27 synagogues in New York. At this time, about half of the city's Jewish population was German, a third was Polish in origina, with the remaining sixth consisting of native Jews and those born in Bohemia, Russia, Holland, England, France, Galicia and other countries.

The immigrants formed a host of mutual aid societies, and these in turn led to the organization of lodges and fraternal orders. The Independent Order B'nai B'rith was founded in 1843 at Sinsheimer's cafe, 60 Essex Street, by a group of 12 men led by Henry Jones. Seven of these may also have been among the founders of the Cultus Verein which led to the formation of Temple Emanu-El in 1845. In 1849, the Independent order Free Sons of Israel was organized, possibly by some former members of B'nai B'rith. A decade later, the Brith Abraham arose, and in 1860, the Kesher Shel Barzel (Iron Knot) was founded.

This period also saw the birth of English-Jewish and German-Jewish journalism in the U.S. The first Jewish periodical in the U.S. was THE JEW, published in New York by Solomon H. Jackson, from 1823 to 1825, as a counter-measure against Christian missionary activity. The next newspaper published for New York's Jews was a German weekly, Israel's Herold, edited by Isidor Bush. It lasted only a few months. This was followed by an English-Jewish weekly. The Asmonean, published by Robert Lyon, an English Jew. Durings its existence, from 1849 to 1858. The Asmonean built up a fairly substantial following and became the first really successful English-Jewish weekly in America.


Website: The History
Article Name: Jewish Historical Tid-Bits: Manhattan Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


A Jewish Tourist's Guide to the U.S. by Bernard Postal and Lionel Koppman; The Jewish Publication Society of America (1954)
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