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Finding a New Jerusalem in America Part II

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Spring 2004

(Part One of this article, covering Jewish life in America from 1492 through the eve of the American Revolution, appeared in the Winter 2004 Issues. Part Two carries this story forward to the creation of the new nation. This year marks the celebration of the 350th anniversary of permanent Jewish settlement in America. In September, the Library of Congress will open a major exhibition titled “From Haven To Home: Three Hundred and Fifty Years of Jewish History In America.”)  


In colonial America, writes Howard M. Sachar in A History of Jews InAmerica, “ ... not a single law was ever enacted ... specifically to disable Jews ... They were much better off in the New World than in the Old. They were free to engage in any trade, in any colony, but also to own a home in any neighborhood. ... Their neighbors at worst were suspicious or unfriendly, but few taunted them, and instances of physical molestation were quite rare. By 1776, the two thousand Jews of colonial America unquestionably were the freest Jews on earth.”  

Further bolstering this argument was Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist who visited New York in 1748 and reported, “Jews enjoyed all of the privileges common to all other inhabitants of the town and province.”  

One indication of Jews’ success and acceptance in America is their involvement in social groups. Abram Vossen Goodman notes in his chapter “South Carolina from Shaftesbury to Salvador” in Jews in the South, that Jews faced little if any discrimination in Charleston. Among those he cited were Moses Solomon who became a member of St. Andrew’s Society, a Scottish social and philanthropic organization with members from a range of backgrounds. Another example is Isaac Da Costa, who in 1759 was made treasurer of King Solomon’s Lodge, the oldest regularly constituted lodge in the Masonry of South Carolina.  

Treated as Equals  

One observer, Rev. Martin Bolzius, minister of Georgia’s Salzburg Lutherans, wrote in 1739, “The Englishmen, nobility and common folks alike treat the Jews as their equal. They drink, gamble and walk together with them; in fact, let them take part in all their fun. Yes, they desecrate Sunday with them, a thing no Jew would do on their Sabbath to please a Christian.”  

Another Southern observer, Gerard de Brahm, offered an almost idyllic picture of the religious tranquility in South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. Using the time’s uneven spelling and capitalization, shortly before the Revolution the Charlestonian wrote, “The city is divided in two parishes, has two churches, St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, and six meeting houses, with an Independent, a Presbyterian, a French, a German, and two Baptist; there is also an assembly for Quakers, and another for Jews; all which are composed of several nations, altho’ differing in religious principels, and in the knowledge of salvation, yet are far from being incouraged, or even inclining to that disorder which is so common among men of contrary religious sentiments in many other parts of the world, where that pernicious spirit of controversy has laid foundation to hatred, persecution, and cruel inquisition, in lieu of ascertaining thereby how to live a godly life. A society of men (which in religion, government, and negotiation avoids whatever can disturbe peace and quietness) will always grow and prosper: so will this City and Province, whose inhabitants was from its beginning renound for concord, compleasance, courteousness, and tenderness towards each other, and more so towards foreigners, with out regard or respect of nation or religion.”  

Rate of Intermarriage  

Another sign of the acceptance of Jews was the rate of intermarriage. According to Malcolm Stern, almost 16 percent of marriages by Jews in America from the colonial period until 1840 were with Christians. The rate was highest in rural areas, where it was particularly difficult for Jews to find spouses within their religion.  

The praise that Jews received from their Christian friends, neighbors, and associates illustrates the high level of acceptance they enjoyed. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette eulogized Nathan Levy as a merchant who behaved with probity and praised “the fair Character he maintain’d in all his Transactions.” In 1767 in Lancaster Pennsylvania, Reverend Thomas Barton described Joseph Simon as “a worthy, honest Jew and the principal merchant of this place.” When Aaron Lopez died in 1782, his friend Reverend Ezra Stiles praised his generosity and composed the following epitaph for his tombstone: “His knowledge in commerce was unbounded and his integrity irreproachable.” A Massachusetts newspaper writer characterized Lopez as “a good citizen and an honest man.”  

Faber writes that there is much evidence of the acceptance and assimilation of Jews in colonial society. The portraits and miniatures commissioned by the colonial Jews show “the extent to which clothing and hairstyles conformed with those prevalent among Gentile contemporaries. Male Jews appear in these likenesses dressed in the clothing and wigs worn by Englishmen of the era, clean-shaven, and without the head covering traditional among observant Jews. Their wives — among them Abigail Franks — appear in dresses as fashionable as those in the portraits of their female Gentile contemporaries, often with plunging necklines, in defiance of traditional Jewish strictures to dress modestly, and without the wigs that observant married women donned when they appeared in public.”  

Environment of Acceptance  

Daniels does not paint a glowing picture, but she does describe an environment of acceptance. She writes, “Eighteenth century Jewry encountered many of the same problems as other ethnic and religious minorities; they wished to assimilate, and yet they also wanted to retain their own culture. They were accepted, if not loved, because their skills were needed and their numbers so small so as not to antagonize the majority. They benefited, because as merchants they tended to settle in cosmopolitan areas, where people were more tolerant of religious differences. The anti-Jewish legislation of Europe did not follow them to the New World, and the prejudices of the colonists did not, it would appear, repress the Jews socially or economically. To a great extent they were absorbed into the general culture. There was no ghetto to isolate the small community of Jews, and they emulated their neighbors in dress, education and other aspects of social and domestic relations. They were, however, able to retain a large measure of unity and cultural identity—more so than the Jewish immigrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”  

In Jewish Life in America: Historical Perspectives, Richard B. Morris writes that the benevolent environment in America served to inspire communities abroad. “America’s toleration toward Jews and other religious minorities, and the steps taken to guarantee their civil and political rights, served as a spur to the movement on the European continent for the emancipation of the Jews, so long victims of discriminatory laws. In their petition to the French National Assembly of January 1790, the Jews of France pointed to America, citing that Revolutionary land for having ‘rejected the word toleration from its code,’ for, they cogently reasoned, ‘to tolerate is, in fact, to suffer that which you could, if you wished, prevent and prohibit.’”  

Colonial America did present some barriers to complete acceptance of the Jews. However, these difficulties were not insurmountable, and Jews, who took part in American history since the nation’s beginning, were able to succeed socially and economically in this land which offered them more opportunity and freedom than any other.  

Colonial Jews: Battling Anti-Semitism; Sacrificing for the Revolution  

In America, European Jewish immigrants found a New Jerusalem. They succeeded in commerce, found social acceptance, and were free from the regular violence that had plagued their communities in Europe. Although they enjoyed a friendly reception in America, perhaps living in the most accepting environment in the world, they had not left all anti-Semitism behind them. They faced anti-Semitic legislation, social discrimination, and even, on rare occasions, violence.  

Some discrimination in the New World existed because Britain had delegated governance of some American colonies, particularly in New England, to intensely pietistic Christian Nonconformist groups. These sects were not so much anti-Semitic as xenophobic and were intent on maintaining their own religious societies. Eli Faber writes in A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820, “Jews who chose to immigrate to the New World were assured of finding at least the same measure of toleration in most of England’s colonies as that prevailing in the mother country. The exceptions were Massachusetts and Connecticut during the seventeenth century, where anyone who did not subscribe to Puritan orthodoxy was unwelcome.”  

Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary Dale Palsson write in Jews in the South that Jews faced some form of discrimination in each of the colonies. According to the written law, though in practice the harshest penalties were never enforced, denial of the Trinity could lead to imprisonment in Virginia and death in Maryland. A 1705 Virginia statute denied Jews from obtaining full citizenship and barred them from appearing in court as witnesses. In 1723, the Maryland law code read: “If any person shall hereafter within this province deny our Savior, Jesus Christ, to be the true Son of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity, he should for the first offense be fined and have his tongue bored, and ... for the third offense be put to death.” In South Carolina after 1716, only Christians could vote in the colony. Maryland and North Carolina barred Jews from the legal profession.  

Discrimination and Animosity  

In 1778, the following item appeared in the Charleston Gazette: Refugees “of the Tribe of Israel who, after taking every advantage in trade the times admitted of in the State of Georgia, as soon as it was attacked by an enemy, fled here for an asylum with their ill-got wealth, dastardly turning their backs upon the country, when in danger, which gave them bread and protection.”  

In New York and Philadelphia, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. In 1773, when Savannah’s Jews petitioned the legislature to enlarge their cemetery, a successful counterpetition asserted that “no Person would choose to buy or rent an House whose Windows looked onto a Burial Ground of any kind, particularly one belonging to a People who might be presumed, from Prejudice of Education to have imbibed Principles entirely repugnant to those of our most holy religion.”  

The discrimination and animosity that other minority groups suffered is well documented, with blacks and Indians facing the harshest sanctions. Though certainly not on the same scale as those persecuted groups, other minorities faced prejudice as well. When Savannah’s Presbyterians attempted to expand their cemetery, they faced similar discrimination to that of the Jews, with their petition being rejected. Faber writes that “the English regarded the Germans in the hinterland of Pennsylvania as obtuse and dull, comical and ridiculous,” while “prejudices against Catholics abounded, including the fear of plots masterminded by the Pope.”  

One Group Among Many  

Faber sums up the level of anti-Semitism in colonial America: “A catalogue of anti-Jewish incidents and remarks verifies the presence of anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century America and the inheritance from England of hostile views, rooted in economics and religion, regarding Jews. The tolerant environment of the colonies, on the other hand, amply counterbalanced this hostility, while the fact that the Jews were only one among many groups interacting with the English may well have softened their distinctiveness and mitigated their condition as aliens in what was a nascent multiethnic and multi religious society.”  

Although Jews faced sporadic anti-Semitism in some colonies, they were always able to go to another colony to receive fair treatment. Melvin Urofsky, professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes the impact of anti-Semitism: “Though one cannot deny the existence of anti-Jewish prejudices or legal disabilities, they apparently proved neither debilitating nor of great inconvenience.”  

Despite the legal barriers that Jews faced, they were not the primary targets of these restrictions. In The Land That I Show You: Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America, Stanley Feldstein writes, “At no time during the colonial era was there ever enacted any law whose purpose was to restrict Jewish rights. Rather, the legal disabilities were directed against Protestant non-conformists and Catholics.”  

Most Freedom in the World  

Feldstein notes that although Jews faced legal restrictions for most of their colonial experience, most Jews “recognized that they enjoyed more freedom in America than anywhere else in the world. They also recognized that they enjoyed a wider range of freedom than Catholics and Protestant non-conformists.”  

Doris Groshen Daniels writes in the American Jewish Historical Quarterly that anti-Semitism was not widespread and was not a significant problem apart from temporary trade bans and legal restrictions. “There are accounts of isolated incidents, such as the interruption of a funeral procession, but they seem to have been the pranks of individuals rather than widescale attacks.” Daniels cites the testimony of one Jew who reported that in the colonies “all live in peace,” and “as for the Gentiles, we have nothing to complain about.” Daniels concludes that discrimination was not largely directed at the Jews because their small numbers meant that they did not constitute a political or economic threat to the general population.  


Although Jews were largely excluded from politics in colonial America, they still took an active part in the American Revolution. The Revolution was a decisive turning point in terms of Jewish involvement in American politics. Such engagement in the war was unnecessary, as many Americans abstained from the conflict. As John Adams famously commented, about one-third of colonial Americans took the American side, one-third sided with England, and the remainder stayed neutral.  

Faber writes, “Without penalty, recriminations, or untoward consequences, America’s Jews could easily have chosen neutrality in the conflict between the colonies and the mother country, a choice that would have accorded well with their political nonexistence. The fact that nearly all chose one side or another, often quite visibly, indicates the degree to which colonial Jews felt that they belonged to early American society, in dramatic contrast to their centuries of exclusion in Europe. The Revolution, therefore, represents a watershed in the history of the Jewish people in America and for western Jewry everywhere; it was a milestone in the emergence of the Jew as a citizen participating in the political life of his nation.”  


Many historians of American Jewish history have chosen to ignore the characters and anecdotes that might cast doubt on the Jewish role in American society. Fearful of the security of Jews’ reputation and social acceptance, they chose to focus on the plentiful stories of Jewish patriotism. However, it is important to acknowledge that not all American Jews fit this mold. In a study of the colonial period, an area of American Jewish life that has often been set aside by historians is the division among Jews in their support for the American Revolution. The 13 colonies were deeply divided with a significant proportion siding with Britain. Jews have not held distinctly different views from their non-Jewish countrymen in any American conflict, and the American Revolution is no different.  

British historian Cecil Roth commented on this phenomenon writing in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, “It is what might be termed a cardinal principle of American Jewish historical study that, in the decisive eighteenth-century conflict that marked the birth of the United States, the whole of the diminutive Jewish community almost without exception embraced the ‘patriot’ cause. The assertion is to be found in virtually every treatise on American Jewish history. ... The Jews who supported the loyalist cause acted according to their consciences at a cost which was sometimes no less than that paid on the opposing side.”  

For many, choosing between England and America was very difficult. There were few regional or economic clues to determine which side a colonist would back. Roth writes that the same phenomenon was true for the Jews, but he adds, “Something approaching a principle of demarcation however is possibly discernable on communal lines: for the Jews of Spanish and Portuguese extraction seem to have been wholehearted in the main for the colonial cause, whereas the Ashkenazim were more evenly distributed between the two sides.” The Sephardim were more likely to be loyal to the American cause because they had lived in America for longer, while the Ashkenazim were more evenly divided.  

Sympathy for the British  

Roth told the stories of a number of loyalist or Tory families in the colonies. Isaac Hart was one of the founders of the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island. Hart was open and active in his sympathy for the British. On July 7, 1780, the Assembly of Rhode Island deprived Hart and two of his relatives of their rights and property because of their loyalist sympathies. Hart fled to Long Island, where he later helped man an improvised loyalist redoubt. Hart was bayoneted to death when colonial forces assaulted the fort. Some loyalist Jews left the colonies for England or Canada. Others stayed and aided British forces. Most loyalist Jews ultimately suffered for their beliefs, with some losing their property and rights, and others, like Hart, losing their lives.  

Also recognizing this split in the Jewish population, Richard B. Morris wrote in Jewish Life in America: Historical Perspectives, “Like other inhabitants of the colonies, Jews obeyed the dictates of conscience and exercised the right of dissent from whichever party might be the prevailing one in their particular communities. The coming of the revolution found Jewish families, like those of other faiths, torn asunder and Jewish congregations split wide open.”  

Among the Jews who played prominent roles in service to the English were David Franks, royal purveyor and commissary-general of British troops; Myer Hart, supplier to British troops in Pennsylvania; Moses Nunes, searcher of the port of Savannah; and Myer Pollock, who aided the British war effort in Newport.  

Revolutionary Divisions  

In A History of the Jews in America, Howard M. Sachar describes other revolutionary divisions: “After the battles of Lexington and Concord, some Jews remained Loyalists, others became Whigs, and many others equivocated. Families divided in the Revolution. There were Gomezes, Lopezes, and Hayses in both the colonial and British camp. Members of the renowned Franks clan of New York and Philadelphia, who had made their greatest fortunes as suppliers to the British armed forces, were endlessly grateful for the Empire’s protection and benevolence. In Philadelphia, the beauteous Rebecca Franks reigned as queen of a society ball attended by General Sir Henry Clinton, the new British commander. Rodrigo Pacheco, Philip Moses, and Abraham Wag, among other leading citizens of New York, remained behind British lines. And once the British evacuated the city, not a few Jews fled to British protection on Long Island or in Philadelphia. Not a few also paid for their loyalty. After the war, several were driven into exile, losing their estates and even their lives. David Franks left for England, never to return.”  


Although many Jews remained loyal to the English, the well-told story of Jewish patriotism and sacrifice for the American side is also true. Morris writes, “The roster of American Jewish participants on the side of the revolution is so impressive that it is clear that Whiggish Jews constituted an overwhelming majority of the scattered Jewish communities in the thirteen colonies. ... Perhaps because of their involvement with commerce, Jewish protestors against the new British revenue program were proportionately more numerous than those of any other ethnic or religious group.”  

In May 1776, New York’s Jews assembled in the synagogue on a day of fasting proclaimed by the Continental Congress and prayed, “O Lord: the God of our Fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, may it please thee, to put it in the heart of our Sovereign Lord, George the third, and in the hearts of his Councellors, Princes and Servants, to turn away their fierce Wrath from against North America, And to destroy the wicked devices of our enemies, that it may fall on their own heads.”  

Jewish Patriots  

Three of the best known Jewish patriots were Francis Salvador, David Solebury Franks, and Haym Solomon.  

Salvador was the first Jewish member of the South Carolina Assembly. An emigrant from England, he was elected to the first and second provincial congresses between 1773 and 1776. He helped draft South Carolina’s state constitution and volunteered in one of the state’s militia companies assigned to repel attacks from the Tories and their Indian allies. In the summer of 1776, he traveled to Tory communities in North Carolina to try to sway them to the patriot side. On August 1, 1776, he was ambushed by a party of Tories and Cherokee Indians, who shot and scalped him.  

Franks enlisted in the Continental army and became a major and aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. The Continental Congress later sent Franks to Madrid to deliver diplomatic dispatches to John Jay who was working to negotiate the peace. He served as a diplomatic courier once more before becoming an American diplomat himself. He left military service with the rank of lieutenant colonel.  

After the British captured New York, Haym Solomon, a Polish-born Jew, remained in the enemy camp to act as an interpreter for the Hessians, the German-born soldiers fighting on behalf of the British. Solomon would serve not only as an interpreter, but also as a spy for the Americans. After two years of clandestine activities, he was discovered and sentenced to death. However, he managed to escape to Philadelphia where he offered his skills to the Continental Congress.  

“Jew Company”  

The Jews had a particularly patriotic reputation in the South, where they appear to have volunteered in very high numbers. The Jews of Charleston as well as some recruits from Georgia formed such a large proportion of Captain Lushington’s company that it became known as the “Jew Company.”  

The Jews in Georgia had earned such a rebellious reputation that Georgia’s London-appointed governor, James Wright, wrote that Jewish refugees sympathizing with the American cause should not be permitted to return to the state and no other Jews should be allowed to emigrate to Georgia. “For these people, my lord, were found to a man to have been violent rebels and persecutors of the king’s loyal subjects. And however this law may appear at first sight,” he insisted, “be assured, my lord, that the times require these exertions and without which the loyal subjects have no peace or security in the province.”  

Non-Military Contributions  

Faber estimates that approximately 100 Jews served on the American side, however their effect on the war should not be measured strictly in terms of military service. Because Jews were generally literate, well-off, and well connected, they were able to exert more influence. Morris writes, “Apart from the battlefield, Jews from their connections and expertise in shipping, trade, and finance, made substantial contributions to the successful operation of the war. The Jewish share of privateering, to cite one example, is estimated at six percent of the total, a figure far out of proportion to its slender population.”  

Jews also served as valuable blockade runners and merchants. One of the most prominent blockade runners was Isaac Moses who shipped goods from Amsterdam to the Dutch Caribbean island of Saint Eustatius to American ports. Jewish merchants provided the colonial army with clothing, gunpowder, lead, and other equipment. Among the early industrialists aiding the American cause were Bernard and Michael Gratz who manufactured uniforms and Joseph Simon who manufactured rifles in Lancaster.  

Feldstein details the many non-military roles that Jews played in order to help the American cause. Robert Morris, superintendent of finance, had three Jewish aides. Benjamin Levy and Benjamin Jacobs signed currency bills, and Joseph Simon, Bernard Gratz, and Aaron Levy supplied Pennsylvania troops with everything from gunpowder to clothing. The Sheftalls were fiscal officers for South Carolina; Isaac Levy and Myer Michaels provided financial aid to the Virginia cause; and Manuel Josephson of New York equipped the Continental armies with a variety of weapons.  

Colonial Politics  

Jews were also involved in colonial American politics. Two Jewish patriots prominent in colonial politics were Philip Minis and Mordecai Sheftall who served on the committee in Savannah that enforced the decisions of the American patriots. Sheftall served as the committee’s chairman.  

Although anti-Semitism often increases in wartime, Morris writes that this was not the case during the Revolutionary War. “When one considers that the American Revolution was a civil war, that leading Patriots held a deep and abiding prejudice against Roman Catholics, that the rhetoric of abuse in which both sides indulged has seldom been surpassed except in our own time, and, further, that the Jews seemed especially vulnerable since they provided scapegoats on both sides of the conflict, it is astonishing how little anti-Semitism was stirred up as a result of the Revolutionary crisis.”  

The war had an enormous impact on Jewish social and economic life, causing significant population shifts among Jewish communities. The colonial Jewish population of Newport was dispersed by the war, and Savannah and Boston were economically devastated, rendering them less attractive to Jewish merchants. Many Jews fled New York and other occupied areas; a large number resettled in Philadelphia. Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston also experienced increases in their Jewish populations.  

Diverse Population  

Richard Brilliant writes in Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America, “Overall, the postwar American Jewish population reconfigured, relocated, and grew, adding scale and, more diversity to the mix. The war also changed the nature of business traditionally conducted by colonial Jewry. Severed ties with England confounded prior patterns of trans-Atlantic trade. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jewish economics turned more local and became more modest in scale. Despite a few merchants engaged in the newly emerging trade with the Far East, most Jewish merchants in the early Republic concentrated on domestic commerce. The young nation, engaged in establishing its own infrastructure, provided new opportunities for local manufacturing, merchandising, and trade. Jewish life incorporated this new diversity of population, space, and economic options. The era of a singular hierarchical, East Coast Jewish merchant class was at an end.”  


A rarely told story is that of the Jewish Hessians, who, as new arrivals in America, offered a valuable fresh perspective. One Hessian soldier on duty in New York during the revolution noted in a letter to his family in Germany, “the Jews cannot be told, like in our country, by their beards and costume, but are dressed like other citizens, shave regularly, and also eat pork, although their religion forbids it. Jews and Christians, moreover, do not hesitate to intermarry. The Jewish women have their hair dressed and wear French finery like the women of the other faiths.” Many Jewish Hessians settled in America, receiving a mixed reception from the Jews already living there.  


Although Jews had been barred from much of political life in the American colonies, they had taken an active part in the economy and social life. They were leading merchants, frequently intermarried with Christians in the colonies, and some were among the nation’s social elite. With the American Revolution, the pace of their acceptance accelerated. They showed that their destiny was tied to that of their new home by sacrificing economically and on the battlefield.  

They were rewarded by the nation’s new president George Washington, who said in a letter to the Newport Synagogue, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that any other enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 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 in safety under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”  

Comfort in Their New Land  

Illustrating the comfort that Jews felt in their new land, in 1806 Charleston’s congregation wrote in the following tone to London’s Sephardic community to request recommendations for a hazan. “In a free and independent country like America, where civil and religious freedom go hand in hand, where no distinctions exist between the clergy of different denominations, where in short we enjoy all the blessings of freedom in common with our fellow citizens, you may readily conceive we pride ourselves under the happy situation which makes us feel we are men, susceptible of that dignity which belongs to human nature, by participating in all the rights and blessings of this happy country.”  

When America achieved its independence, much of Europe still maintained its anti-Semitic traditions. America, which had been a haven for Jews since 1654, remained a New Jerusalem for Jews from Europe and elsewhere. From the beginning, Jews in America were not only tolerated, but also welcomed and accepted. They rewarded their new land by contributing their sweat, resources, and blood toward creating and strengthening the new country.  

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