Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus on his voyage in 1492 after they liberated Spain from occupying Muslim forces.
Spain’s then forced Sephardic Jews to flee, first to Portugal and then to Amsterdam, where some sailed with Dutch merchants to the city of Recife, South America.
When Spain and Portugal attacked there, Jews fled again.
Twenty-three Jewish refugees stopped off at Port Royal, Jamaica, then sailed on the French ship Sainte Catherine, to become the first Jews to arrive in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam in 1654.
Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant attempted to expel them, but they were allowed to stay, as the Dutch West India Company in Holland considered Spain and Portugal its main enemies, not Jews or other dissenters.
The Dutch were in a global contest with Spain and Portugal over possessions in Indonesia, India, Africa and South America, and so they wanted to quickly populate the colony of New Netherlands for its defense and profitability.
In 1663, the Dutch West India Company instructed Peter Stuyvesant regarding Quakers “and other sectarians”:
“Immigration…must be favored at so tender a stage of the country’s existence, you may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.”
Still, though, Jews in New Amsterdam were not allowed to worship outside their homes or join the city’s militia.
Then, in 1664, British forces took control over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York, and Jews were allowed more freedom.
In 1730, Jewish citizens in New York bought land and built the small “Mill Street Synagogue,” the first Jewish house of worship in North America.
During colonial America, Jewish population grew to around 2,000 in seven Sephadic congregations:
Shearith Israel, New York City, begun 1655;
Yeshuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island, begun 1658;
Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, begun 1733;
Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, begun 1740;
Shaarai Shomayim, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, begun 1747;
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina, begun 1749; and Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalom, Richmond, Virginia, begun 1789.
During the Revolution, Jewish merchants, such as Aaron Lopez of Newport and Isaac Moses of Philadelphia, sailed their ships past British blockades to provide clothing, guns, powder and food to the needy Revolutionary soldiers.
Some merchants lost everything.
Jews fought in the American Army, such as Lieut. Solomon Bush and Francis Salvador of South Carolina, the first Jewish State Legislator, who was killed in a Revolutionary War battle;
Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah was Deputy Commissary General for American troops, 1778;
Abigail Minis supplied provisions to American soldiers in 1779; and
Reuben Etting of Baltimore fought and was appointed U.S. Marshall for Maryland by Jefferson, 1801.
George Washington’s Jewish physician, Dr. Philip Moses Russell, suffered with him at Valley Forge.
President Calvin Coolidge recounted, May 3, 1925:
“Haym Solomon, Polish Jew financier of the Revolution. Born in Poland, he was made prisoner by the British forces in New York, and when he escaped set up in business in Philadelphia.
He negotiated for Robert Morris all the loans raised in France and Holland, pledged his personal faith and fortune for enormous amounts,
and personally advanced large sums to such men as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Baron Steuben, General St. Clair, and many other patriot leaders who testified that without his aid they could not have carried on in the cause.”
In 1975, a U.S. postage stamp honored Haym Solomon, with printing on the back:
“Financial hero-businessman and broker Haym Solomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later saved the new nation from collapse.”
The American Revolution was the first time in history since their exile from Jerusalem that Jews fought as equals alongside their Christian neighbors in a fight for freedom.
George Washington sent a letters to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Savannah, Georgia, stating:
“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven.”
Ashkenazic Jews were few in America until a persecution in Bavaria in the 1830s resulted in over 200,000 immigrating.
President Martin Van Buren sent a letter to the Muslim Ottoman Turks requesting that they stop the killing of Jews in Syria,
“on behalf of an oppressed and persecuted race, among whose kindred are found some of the most worthy and patriotic of American citizens.”
David Yulee, “Father of Florida Railroads,” was the first Jew elected to the U.S Senate in 1845, joined in 1853 by Senator Judah P. Benjamin from Louisiana.
Governor David Emanuel of Georgia was the first Jewish Governor of any U.S. State; and in 1818, Solomon Jacobs was Mayor of Richmond, Virginia.
Uriah P. Levy was the first Jewish Commodore in the U.S. Navy, fighting in the War of 1812 and commanding the Mediterranean squadron.
He was responsible for ending the practice of flogging in the Navy.
A WWII destroyer and a chapel at Annapolis were named after him.
When Jefferson’s Monticello home was decaying, Levy bought it in 1836, repaired it and opened it to the public. He commissioned the statute of Jefferson which is the the U.S. Capitol rotunda.
Samuel Mayer Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger, wrote December 28, 1860:
“This Republic was the first to recognize our claims to absolute equality, with men of whatever religious denomination. Here we can sit each under his vine and fig tree, with none to make him afraid.”
Jews fought courageously on both sides during the Civil War.
In 1862, the London Jewish Chronicle reported:
“We now have a few words of the Jews of the United States in general…The Constitution having established perfect religious liberty, Jews were free in America…They…in a comparatively short time, prospered and throve there in a degree unexampled in Europe.”
On March 1, 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated and a pogrom began against Jews, leading to over 2 million fleeing to America.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson wrote:
“Whereas in countries engaged in war there are 9 million Jews, the majority of whom are destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; driven from their homes without warning…causing starvation, disease and untold suffering…
The people of the U.S. have learned with sorrow of this terrible plight…
I proclaim JANUARY 27, 1916, a day to make contributions for the aid of the stricken Jewish people to the American Red Cross.”
William J. Federer is a nationally known speaker, best-selling author, and president of Amerisearch, Inc., a publishing company dedicated to researching America’s noble heritage.
To learn more about the author please visit William Federer
Featured image: The Fall of New Amsterdam, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, oil on canvas, c. 1932