American Jewish history is characterized by three waves of immigrants from three different parts of Europe. The economic, social and religious mores of the three groups were distinct from one another.
Following the spread of the Inquisition to the New World, the first Jews in the United States came from Portuguese-ruled Brazil. In 1654, twenty-three adult Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardic) Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. The environment they found there was scarcely hospitable. In 1655, more Jews arrived from Holland. Nine years later, the British took over what would become New York and the situation regarding freedom of worship improved from that time.
In colonial times, Jews settled along the Atlantic coast and in several southern states. During the 17th century, Rhode Island was the only New England colony which allowed a permanent Jewish community. That settlement was in Newport, where the Touro Synagogue, built in 1773, still stands as a memorial to the patriot and philanthropist Judah Touro.
Other early Spanish-Portuguese Jewish communities were established in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. The Philadelphia congregation (Congregation Mikveh Israel) was organized about 1745. The Richmond community was established after the Revolution.
The second period in American Jewish history was dominated by German Jewry. Coming out of an assimilated, emancipated background, German Jews were prompted to emigrate by the scarcity of land, rural poverty and government restrictions on marriage, domicile and employment. Although there were German Jews in America before the early 19th Century, it is after that time that they became the predominant Jewish cultural group. Coming to America in a period of rapid geographic expansion, the German Jews became part of the developing Midwest. They spread west, following the route of the Erie Canal. Communities were established in Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and St. Paul. Wherever they settled, they formed a congregation and bought land for a cemetery.
The first German Jews to emigrate were mostly young men. They entered thinly scattered networks which consisted of relatives and neighbors from the same European communities. The second group came after the failed German revolution (1848). They were somewhat older than the first and more educated. These German Jews often went into peddling and petty trade, endeavors calling for small outlays of capital. From small starts, many went on to build substantial businesses and were absorbed into the American middle class.
These immigrants came to America in search of democracy. This is reflected in their overall concern for Jewish communal conditions. Religious, philanthropic and fraternal organizations were founded during this period. Many German-Jewish immigrants were part of the Reform Movement and the religious life of American Jews was colored by that connection. Founded in Hamburg, Reform Judaism aimed at winning civic equality and social acceptance in the modern world.
The third wave of Jewish immigrants into the United States was also the largest. Jews fleeing restrictions and extreme persecutions (pogroms) came from Poland and Russia. In 1904, the Tsarist Government established the Pale of Settlement, an area stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Jewish settlement in the Empire was restricted to that area. These Jews were largely urban, having lived in towns and villages, called shtetls. Among such communities were Warsaw, Odessa, Lodz and Vilna — names later to be obliterated by the Holocaust. Jews in the Pale also had restrictions placed on their means of employment; the majority were merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen.
The Russian pogroms (1881-84 and 1903-06) resulted in heavy Jewish emigration to Western Europe and the United States. Because of the pogroms, the profile of the Russian Jewish immigrant differed greatly from that of the German Jew. The latter came largely as single men; the former were entire family groups. Within the Russian Jewish masses who came to America were groups of Hasidic Jews. Most Hasidim who immigrated to the United States in this time period maintained a strict, orthodox way of life.
Russian Jews comprised the last great wave of immigrants coming to America and they settled in the urban centers. Predominantly industrial proletariat, many raised capital and proceeded to go into business. They brought with them a rich Yiddish culture expressing itself through journalism, fiction, poetry and the theater. As the Sephardim had once regarded the middle class German Jews as upstarts, the German Jews now felt more “American” than the working class Russian Jews. Class standing was not the only point of difference between the two groups. Accustomed to the insular life of the Pale, Russian Jews formed cohesive communities. They strongly upheld a sense of religiosity which permeated their lifestyle and offended their assimilationist co-religionists. Their development and maintenance of a Yiddish culture (Yiddishkeit) also served to uphold their cultural differences.
Between the two World Wars, Jews continued to join their families in the United States. After the tragic events of the Second World War, thousands of homeless European Jews entered the United States. Since then, American Jewish communities have also been enriched by the diversity of Eastern Jews, particularly from Iran and Syria. In recent times, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has also been another influx of Russian Jews. Unlike the earlier Russian immigrants, these Soviet Jews have had scant opportunity to maintain Jewish rituals and customs, or to study Hebrew.
One of the Museum’s treasures is an item of Jewish Americana — the Elizabeth Judah sampler. The Ten Commandments were cross-stitched on this piece of linen by Elizabeth Judah in 1771. She was the eight-year old daughter of a pioneer Canadian Jewish family. This is one of the oldest known artifacts relating to the history of the Jews of Canada.