July 3, 2015
Since it’s almost July 4th and we are in a synagogue, I thought I would spend a few minutes talking about the Jews who first came to this country before the Revolutionary War.
Jews in Colonial America were certainly free of the overt persecutions and forced conversions to Christianity that had been their experience in Europe; however they weren’t exactly free to live on an equal basis with their Protestant counterparts. (Nor for that matter were the Catholics.)
The first group of North American Jews landed in New York–then known as Dutch New Amsterdam –arrived in 1654. There were 23 of them, primarily traders and merchants, and they came from Brazil after having fled persecution in Europe.
Since New Amsterdam was Dutch, and Holland was known for its religious tolerance, these Jews figured they had it made. Unfortunately, Governor Peter Stuyvesant didn’t see it that way; he didn’t want Jews to settle in his colony. But economics prevailed over prejudice, as the Dutch West India Company was interested in these Jewish traders, and effectively convinced Stuyvesant to let them stay.
And so they were allowed to trade and to own real estate. However they were not permitted to hold public office, open a retail shop, or establish a synagogue.
When in 1664 the English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York, life for the Jews remained essentially the same.
As public worship was seen as a threat to the Protestant way of life and was therefore forbidden, Jews prayed privately in a mill loft, which they made into a makeshift synagogue.
For those of you who heard Rabbi Schwartz speak last week about the history of Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal church, we recall that just as Jews prayed privately and in secret in colonial times, so too–in a far more violent climate–did our southern African-American counterparts find ways to pray together even when it was forbidden.
In any case, the mill loft was the precursor to the first publicly known synagogue Shearith Israel, which was consecrated around 1720, and which exists as a congregation to this day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, what was Jewish religious life like during this time? These were Sephardic Jews, and for the most part they maintained their Orthodox religious observance. Remember, the Reform and Conservative movements didn’t exist yet. However, once in America, there was a relaxation of observance among some at least, when it came to dietary laws and keeping the Sabbath. It’s known for example that Jews served in the army during the Revolution, where they certainly would have not kept kosher or observed Shabbat.
What’s more, during this time, Colonial Jews chose not to import ordained Rabbis from Europe, as their sister congregations in the Caribbean and South America had done. And so there was no one whose role was to decide on matters of ritual law (halakha), make sure people kept kosher, or be a model for Jewish scholarship and learning. This didn’t change until the 1830s. When disputes arose, unlike the European model where issues were resolved within the Jewish community, here in the colonies, Jews like everyone else relied on civil authority. This was new.
So–who led the congregations in worship? It was the Cantor, known as the Hazzan-Minister.
In fact, the area where the colonial Jewish community was most strict about adherence to tradition, was with its music–Torah cantillation and their liturgical melodies. And so they did import trained cantors–hazzanim–from Amsterdam and London.
Along comes the Revolutionary War. When the British army advanced into New York, most of the members of Shearith Israel, who sided with the rebels, took their Torahs and fled first to Connecticut and four years later, to Philadelphia where they founded a new synagogue, Mikveh Israel. Meanwhile, some members of Shearith Israel, who were loyal to England, remained in New York. Here we may have just witnessed the first congregational ideological split.
Shearith Israel congregation still exists today: to borrow from Guys and Dolls, it’s the “oldest established permanent floating synagogue” in New York. It floated up from its first home on Mill Street downtown to the upper west side where it’s an active synagogue today.
So that’s New York, what about the Jews of New Jersey? Although it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that there were known established Jewish communities, Jewish merchants from New York and Philadelphia did conduct business in New Jersey during the colonial period. Among the first Jewish settlers were Aaron and Jacob Lozada, who owned a grocery and hardware store in Bound Brook as early as 1718. Daniel Nunez appears in a 1722 court record as town clerk and tax collector for Piscataway Township and justice of the peace for Middlesex County. This may be earlier than their New York counterparts would have been allowed to hold civic office.
In any case, it was the war that led to a change in status of American Jews.
As I mentioned, Jews for the most part sided with the rebels; they signed non-import agreements, promising not to trade with the England, and many enlisted in the Continental Army and the various militias. They served as soldiers and in some cases as officers. Some Jewish merchants also made significant financial contributions to the revolutionary war cause. After the war, George Washington as President wrote to several of the Jewish congregations thanking them for their contributions and their service.
Over time, the newly formed states loosened their policies regarding the restriction of voting to Protestants only, and by the early 1800s Jews were given the right to vote–(Jewish men, that is…).
We had it easy compared to our African-American counterparts, who didn’t get the vote until much later, and who had a far more violent history than we ever did in this country. But our colonial American history should serve as a reminder that we too have had to struggle for equal treatment under the law even here, in the land of freedom whose birth we celebrate this weekend.
In a 1790 letter to the Newport Rhode Island Congregation, George Washington wrote: "May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. [Michah]"
May this beautiful image one day come true for all Americans, and may we help to make it happen.