May is Jewish American Heritage Month in the United States. It is a time for “hundreds of organizations and Americans of all backgrounds [to] [join] together to discover, explore, and celebrate the vibrant and varied American Jewish experience from the dawn of our nation to the present day.” In this blog post we’ll talk about the history of Jewish American Heritage Month, the history of the first Jewish community in New Amsterdam (later New York),  and share some educational resources and activities for your learners.

Despite the first Jewish community in North America forming in 1654, a commemorative month-long celebration of the heritage of Jewish-Americans wasn’t recognized until 2006! George W. Bush was the first president to formally proclaim May to be Jewish-American Heritage Month, in cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Florida, and the South Florida Jewish community. Every president since has proclaimed May Jewish American Heritage Month. On April 28, 2023, President Biden issued the 2023 proclamation.

It was the 350th anniversary of the first Jewish community in American that inspired the first Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006. In 2010, at a reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month, President Barack Obama remarked “Even before we were a nation, we were a sanctuary for Jews seeking to live without the specter of violence or exile.  That’s what drew a band of 23 Jewish refugees to a place called New Amsterdam more than 350 years ago.” While there were Jewish men and women in the colonies at the time, they were small in number and it was the arrival of this group that is often considered the first Jewish community in New York.

It surprised me to learn that the first Jewish community in Americas was made up of refugees from Brazil, who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. Jews had been living in Portuguese-controlled Brazil since the mid-1500’s, often practicing their religion in secret in fear of the Inquisition.  After the Dutch captured areas of Brazil from Portugal in 1624, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews migrated  to the more tolerant areas to openly practice their religion. It was there that they started the first synagogue in the Americas in Recife, called the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue. In 1654, Portugal recaptured these areas from the Dutch and fearing a re-introduction of the Inquisition, most, if not all, of the Jews in the formerly tolerant Dutch colony departed for other Dutch areas in the West Indies or back in Amsterdam.  A small group of 23 men, women, and children fled the country on board the St. Cathrien, but following a stop in Jamaica were attached by pirates who stole nearly all of their money and belongings  forcing them to reroute to New Amsterdam in the American colonies.

Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue. Now a museum built on the original site of the Synagogue.

Despite being controlled by the some what religiously tolerant Dutch West Indies Company, New Amsterdam was not the safe haven that the refugees had hoped.  They were met with hostility and anti-semitism from the governor Peter Stuyvesant. The group was sued for non-payment of passage and the governor seized what was left of their possessions, sold them at auction, and when they didn’t cover their debt, threw several of their members in jail. He wrote to the Dutch East India Company who controlled the colony to ask them for permission to “require [the Jews] in a friendly way to depart.” The Company rejected his letter and told him that the Jews must be permitted to live, travel, and work in the colonies, as long as they didn’t become a burden. Even with the explicit permission to live in New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant continued to ban Jews from serving in the military and levied a tax on them so others could serve instead. Also under Stuyvesant, Jews were unable to obtain trade permits in new territories, but Holland overruled this stating that “Jews in the colony were allowed to trade and own real estate, but not hold public office, open a retail shop, or establish a synagogue.” European Jews did continue to immigrate to New Amsterdam and a burial ground and synagogue were formed, despite Stuyvesant’s best efforts to deter immigration. When England conquered New Amsterdam, and renamed it to New York, these prohibitions began to lessen, and the Jewish community slowly obtained more and more rights. In 1706, they established their own congregation, Shearith Israel.

Because of the earliest hostility and difficulties imposed on the Jewish immigrants by Stuyvesant, many of the original settlers left New Amsterdam for other more friendly locations.  Asser Levy, a Jewish man who came to New Amsterdam shortly before the group of 23, remained in the city and was a champion of political civil rights for the new Jewish immigrants, fighting for citizenship, property, and working rights, setting the stage for the many Jewish immigrants that would come to the United States through the following centuries.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Jewish community in New York City check out Jews in America: From New Amsterdam to the Yiddish Stage by the New York Public Library.  There is so much more to learn and explore, especially about the topic of Jewish immigration and diaspora in the United States. We’ve compiled some additional resources for you and your learner(s) to explore the rich heritage of Jewish-Americans.

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