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Fleeing Europe, Jews Found Haven in America

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Fall 2004

By Oscar Reiss  
McFarland and Company, Inc.  
Jefferson, N.C. and London  
231 pages  

The repeated hostility, discrimination and violence that Jews faced in Europe for centuries made the discovery of America nothing short of a godsend. At times Spain, Germany, England and other countries were welcoming to the Jews. But sadly, these countries also double-crossed them — throwing Jews out or imposing harsh restrictions on them. The repeated rise of anti-Semitism in Europe meant that Jews had to look for a safe haven, a country that would offer them no special advantages, but nor would it impose special restrictions.  

Even before Christopher Columbus left on his voyage, Jews hoped that his trip would result in the discovery of a safer land for them. As a result, a number of Jews sailed with Columbus, and as soon as the Europeans established colonies in the New World, the Jews left to populate them. While Latin America proved a gentler environment for Jews than Spain and Portugal had, it was in North America that they found their New Jerusalem in the open societies fostered by the Dutch and British colonists.  

Numbering just 2500 at the time of the Revolution, the Jewish community played a small role in colonial America. However, as Oscar Reiss shows, they attracted the attention and acceptance of America’s greatest leaders.  

Reiss’ new book “The Jews in Colonial America” offers readers an opportunity to learn more about these first American Jews and what drove them to help build the country that would grow to become the best protector of and most welcoming nation for Jews.  

First Settlements  

“The discovery of the New World was a relief valve for the Jews and Marranos who were constantly investigated by the Inquisition,” Reiss writes. And it was Jews fleeing Portuguese rule, as the Dutch were forced to cede their portion of Brazil to Portugal, who formed America’s first organized Jewish community.  

This first group of Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, and although they were physically safe, they faced persistent hostility from that colony’s political leader. Governor Peter Stuyvesant petitioned the Dutch West India Company to “expel these blasphemers of the name of Christ,” warning that if Jews were allowed in the colony, Lutherans and Papists would follow.  

Faced with this hostility, Jews in Amsterdam rushed to their coreligionists’ aid, and pointed out to the directors of the company that the Jews could not return to Spain or Portugal because of the Inquisition. They also noted that the Jews risked and sacrificed their blood and treasure to defend Dutch interests and territory in Brazil.  

Jewish colonists not only represented warm bodies for a colony in need of people, but they also were successful businessmen with international connections. If the French and British were to allow Jews into North America, while the Dutch barred them, Holland would be at a significant disadvantage.  
“Unreasonable and Unfair”  

The Dutch West India Company wrote to Stuyvesant that barring Jews would be “unreasonable and unfair specially because of the considerable loss sustained by the [Jewish] nation ... in the taking of Brazil” and also “because of the large amount of capital which they still have invested in the shares of this company.” They decided “that these people may travel and trade to and in New Netherland and live and remain there, providing that the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community. You will now govern yourself accordingly,” the company warned Stuyvesant.  

Yet he continued to mistreat the Jews, but because of the conditions of the colony and because the other Dutch in New Netherlands were not hostile, he had little success. He tried to bar Jews from serving in the militia, and instead compel them to pay a special tax. But, as Reiss notes, this plan did not work out. “At this time, Indian troubles increased, and more bodies were needed to stand guard on the fortifications. The Jews were then admitted to the militia. Stuyvesant said the Protestants would refuse to serve in the militia alongside the Jews. This, too, proved to be a lie, perhaps because of the additional need for warm bodies.”  

Before any Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, there was a single Jew with the luckless group of colonists that arrived in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1585. Among the 107 men, there was one Jew from Prague. Busily fighting Indians, the group only lasted there for one year. Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke Island on his way back to Great Britain and took the 97 survivors with him.  

New York  

Jews not only faced little discrimination in early America, but they were so widely accepted that assimilation into the community became a concern for some Jewish leaders. Reiss writes, “The Jews of New York and other communities worked, socialized and intermarried with the gentiles. The Sephardim were more prone to intermarriage because they dressed and spoke like their English neighbors. Some Ashkenazis intermarried, and their children were lost to the Jewish community. Sephardim and Ashkenazis rarely intermarried.”  

New York was one of six communities in which the bulk of the American Jewish population lived. The others were Charleston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Newport and Savannah.  

At a time when political privileges were not extended to Jews anywhere in Europe, Jews were beginning to be active in politics in the American colonies. Initially, they were uninterested in politics, viewing New York, and America in general, as a brief stopping point. But as their transient lives were exchanged for more established ones, in which they owned real estate and had business interests, having a political voice became more important.  

Jews faced some restrictions in New York, though these were eventually eroded. Reiss writes, “Jews were not permitted to vote in New York until the Revolutionary constitution in 1777 gave them all the rights of other citizens. However, they did vote earlier in the century. In 1737, Cornelius Van Horn complained to the legislature that Adolph Philippe was elected with the support of Jews. The legislature resolved that since Jews could not vote for members of parliament in England, they could not vote for representatives in New York. This proclamation was gradually forgotten, and by 1761, there was a formal awareness that Jews voted.”  


In Quaker Pennsylvania, Jews faced few problems and were accepted openly in society. In 1682, the leaders of the colony stated that “all persons living in this province who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God ... shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion ... nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever.”  

Just as in New York, Reiss notes that Jews received a warm reception in Philadelphia. “The richer Jews in Philadelphia mixed with the gentile society. Prominent Jews were members of the Philadelphia Club, the Rittenhouse Club, the Union League, and the Racquet, Rabbit and City Troupe. They belonged to the Historical Society, the Philosophical Society, the Academy of Art, the Academy of Science and the Athenaeum. The elite of the Jews mixed with the gentiles more than in any other city in America. Many married gentiles and were lost to their Jewish ancestors.”  

In 1782, the Philadelphia synagogue was consecrated. The Jewish congregation sent the following request to the president, vice president, and executive council of Pennsylvania:“The Congregation Mickve Israel will consecrate a place of worship. The Jews professed selves liege subjects to the sovereignty of the United States and acted accordingly. They crave the protection of the magistrates of this state to give sanction to their design and will be honored by their presence. We pray to the God of Israel for the safety of the United States and particularly this commonwealth.” The name Mickve Israel (Hope of Israel) came from the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere in Curacao.  

When the synagogue was in need of money, in addition to looking to members, it turned to local gentiles for help. Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse and William Bradford were among the contributors. Franklin had business and social relationships with Jews. Nathan Levy was a business associate of Franklin’s for 15 years, and it was his ship that transported the Liberty Bell to America. Franklin also had relationships with Jews through the Library Company and the Pennsylvania Society Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.  

Pennsylvania Jews recognized how fortunate they were to be in America. Hazzan Seixas said, “God had established us in this country where we possess every advantage that other citizens of these states enjoy.” Another Pennsylvanian, Myer Lyons, said, “To us, my brethren, should particularly belong a sacred love of this our country. ... America was a blessed country.”  

Rhode Island  

Renegade Calvinist preacher Roger Williams, who had left the Puritans in Massachusetts, founded Rhode Island. With Williams at the head of this colony, it became a center for Jewish life. Jews were active in the shipping industry, and Providence became a major port. They took advantage of their connections, through family, business and religious connections, to build trading networks that included New England, the American South, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.  

Reiss writes, “In a time when relapsed ‘new Christians’ in Spain and Portugal and their colonies in the New World were burned to death (or if they were lucky or rich, they were garroted first), when a few Jewish financiers and doctors lived surreptitiously in England but were not permitted in France or its colonies, when Jews were tolerated in Holland as long as they did not practice their religion openly, and when Chmielnicki was rousing the peasants of Ukraine and Poland to massacre the Jews, Roger Williams was like a beacon of righteousness.”  

Williams demanded religious freedom as early as 1636, and was particularly concerned about the condition of the Jews, “for whose hard measure, I fear, the nations and England hath yet a score to pay,” he wrote. The legislature of Rhode Island passed a law in 1652 stating, “that all men of whatever nation soever they may be, that shall be received inhabitants of any of the towns, shall have the same privileges as Englishmen any law to the contrary notwithstanding.”  

Egalitarian Spirit  

Williams’ writings illustrate the egalitarian spirit in which he ran the colony. “I humbly conceive it to be the duty of the civil magistrate to break down that superstitious wall of separation between the Gentiles and the Jews, and freely, without their asking, to make way for their free and peaceable habitations among us.” No person should be “any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any differences in opinions in matters of religion. ... I desire not the liberty to myself which I would freely and impartially weigh out to all the consciences of the world beside. ... Suppose in some of the cities in Poland, Holland or Turkey that Jews, Pagans, Anti-Christians and Christians and Turks were mixed together in civil living and commerce. Why would a Turk who converted one of John Cotton’s people to Mohammedanism be more punished for that crime than for turning a Jew, pagan or Papist to his belief and worship? ... Jesus and his servants professed a spiritual way against the doctrine worship and government of Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Anti-Christian religions. These fight His religion as well. This war could be so managed were men but humane civil and peaceable that no civil injury may be committed on either side.”  

Williams’ statement was more than just an ideal. Illustrating how well Jews were treated in Newport and the sense of belonging they felt, the city’s Jewish community sent the following congratulatory message to George Washington in 1790: “[W]ith a deep sense of gratitude [we] ... behold a government erected by the majesty of the people, a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. Deeming everyone of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”  

They received a generous response from Washington. “Given to mankind examples of an enlarged and Biblical policy — a policy worthy of all imitation, all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is no more that toleration is spoken of as it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. ... The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants.”  


In nearby Massachusetts, Jews were not as welcome. Cotton Mather, a prominent resident of the colony, called Roger Williams’ Newport “the common receptacle of the convicts of Jerusalem and the outcasts of the land.”  

But this unfriendliness to Jews presented a problem for the colony because part of the Puritan ideal was the need to learn Hebrew. Puritans saw Hebrew as the holy language in which God’s law was written and in which God and the angels communicated. To address this need, the colony looked to Judah Monis, a Jewish convert to Puritanism. In 1720, Monis was the first Jew to receive a college degree in the colonies. He received a master’s degree from Harvard. On April 30, Harvard voted Monis instructor of the Hebrew language. He was born on February 4, 1683, in either Italy or the Barbary States.  

Even in Puritan New England, which was at times harsh on Jews, they would gain acceptance to such a degree that they would begin to assimilate with Christian society. Reiss writes, “Numbers are hard to prove, but it is said that one of seven to one of ten Jews converted in New England. There were many more Jewish men than women, and most Jews were related. Men who went to Connecticut from New York and became permanent settlers married gentile girls, and their children were brought up in their mother’s religion. Rich Jews who were in business with Protestants mingled socially with them, and their children often intermarried. Their grandchildren were raised as Protestants.”  


It was in Virginia that the groundwork was laid to insure that the United States would welcome Jews for centuries. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in guaranteeing freedom of religion not only in Virginia, but also throughout the nation. Jefferson listed the Virginia law establishing religious freedom as one of his most important accomplishments. Reiss writes that it was the first law in history to grant full equality to all citizens regardless of religion.  

He writes that Jefferson and Madison are the founding fathers who fought for and won religious freedom: “After the Declaration of Independence, Virginia set out to write its constitution. A committee under Colonel Mason stated that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration of their religion. Madison objected to the term ‘toleration.’ Toleration meant to suffer that which you could, if you wished, prevent and prohibit. It was an idea of compassion that degrades men, so the concept of toleration was changed: ‘All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Jefferson and Madison then fought against an effort to support through tax revenue the Episcopal Church. This effort was defeated in 1779.  

Jefferson spent a significant amount of time in France, and Reiss credits Jefferson with not only aiding the position of Jews in America, but also with helping to bring enlightened ideas to France and other parts of Europe. He writes, “The concepts of the emancipation of the Jews and the separation of church and state were brought to Europe by Jefferson. The French Revolution started to give rights to all. Napoleon carried the concept of equal rights wherever his armies went. Lafayette, who was in America, returned to France with these beliefs. Mirabeau, in 1787, published the concept of Jewish emancipation. The French national assembly stated in 1784 ‘That no one shall be molested on account of his religious opinion, insofar as their outward expression does not disturb public order as established by law.’ In 1791, the national assembly passed a law banning all regulations imposed against Jews and making them citizens.”  


Jews played a major role in shipping and trading. This field was a natural fit because of Jews’ experience and contacts around the world. But in America, once they were no longer excluded from many trades, Jews entered artisan guilds and became very successful in manufacturing.  

Reiss offers a list of some of the colonial Jewish manufacturers: “Jacob Marks was involved in copper mining and smelting. He offered to sell 50 tons of copper to Alex Hamilton in 1794. Copper was used for minting money and by ship builders to make sheets to cover wooden hulls. This kept sea worms from digging through the wood and kept rats off the ship. In 1792, Jacob Franks built lumber mills in what would be Green Bay, Wisconsin. Abraham Touro opened a shipyard in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Newport, Rhode Island, was the site of 22 distilleries and four sugar refineries. There were also furniture factories and five rope walks (a long path where ropes were made). Abraham De Leon produced Georgia wine, Joseph Ottolenghe started silk manufacturing, Joseph Simon made guns in Lancaster and Solomon Marache made earthenware and glassware.”  

The significance of this list is the diversity of professions that Jews entered into and excelled at. Once again, Reiss has shown how America offered Jews much greater opportunities than Europe had.  


Reiss avoids falling into the trap of some scholars of colonial Jewish history who argue that Jews were almost all in favor of the Revolution. Instead, he shows that they rationally decided which side to be on based on their treatment in England and America and how their future perspectives were affected.  

Reiss writes, “The Sephardic Jews, particularly the rich, were patriots. The merchant shippers felt they were adversely affected by the British policies. As long as they were citizens under the Naturalization Act of 1740, they could trade under the navigation acts, but they could not trade with foreigners. The Ashkenazi Jews were divided. Most of them came from Germany to Holland to England and to America. They remembered or were told by their forebears about pogroms in Eastern Europe. In Great Britain, however, they had complete freedom of religion (although they had to pay taxes to support the Anglican church). They had freedom to go into any trade to earn a living for their family. The only thing lacking was political equality,” Reiss writes.  

Without going into an exhaustive rundown of what roles Jewish soldiers played in the Revolution and the years immediately following, it is interesting to note that a Simon Levy was in the first graduating class at West Point. Commissioned in 1802, he was one of two students in the class. Of much greater prominence was Uriah Phillips Levy, the first commodore in the United States Navy. (For more on Levy see “How Jefferson’s Ideals Inspired the Levy Family to Preserve Monticello,” by Peter Egill Brownfeld, published in the Spring 2002 edition of Issues.)  


Many colonies had anti-Semitic laws on the books. These varied from Maryland’s bar to Jews entering the colony on the penalty of death to New Jersey’s ruling that only Protestants could hold office. The enforcement of these restrictions varied wildly. The most severe laws were rarely carried out, but the less restrictive ones such as the inability to hold office were often enforced. In a number of colonies, Jews were elected to posts only to later be removed because of their religion.  

In North Carolina, the restrictions against Jews lasted beyond the Civil War. Not until 1868, when the state was under the control of blacks and northern Republicans was a new constitution put in place without the regulation that “persons denying Christ” were barred from holding public office.  

While this discrimination certainly has to be taken into account when studying Jewish life in early America, the positive experiences and laudatory comments of so many Jews shows that the complete picture is an overwhelmingly positive one. For every anti-Semite like Stuyvesant, there were many more people like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and others who fought for the rights of Jews.  


Reiss’s book is an excellent addition to the literature on the colonial Jews. His most important contribution is the superb background he provides. He shows the stark differences in the harsh and sometimes cruel ways Jews were treated in Europe and the generally welcoming environment they found in America.  

He writes, “Whatever their background, the Jews in America, after their problems with Stuyvesant, were aware of their special existence in America compared to the Jews of Europe. They loved and appreciated British America, then the United States. In Europe, Jews were aliens or strangers who lived in a community (kahal) separate from the rest of Christian society.”  

His encyclopedic book is packed with information that scholars and students will find very useful. The book does, however, have some significant weaknesses. Perhaps because it is organized thematically rather than chronologically, it suffers from some repetition. It also has some organizational problems, with some passages not naturally following others. A final issue is that the book ends abruptly. However, despite these problems, it is packed with information, and thus an important contribution to the field.  

Reiss closes his chapter on anti-Semitism with optimism. Because the story of Jews in colonial America is a positive one, with a relative minimum of anti-Semitism, it is also appropriate to close this review with the same upbeat comments from Jews in early America. In a speech, Mordecai Noah said, “Our Country, the bright example of universal tolerance of liberality, true religion and good faith ... the sages and patriots whose collected wisdom adopted them, closed the doors upon that great evil which has shaken the Old World to its center. They proclaimed freedom of conscience. ... Here no inequality of privileges ... no invidious distinctions exist ... justice administered impartially ... this is their chosen country ... protected from tyranny and oppression.”  

In 1806, Myer Moses of Charleston described what America meant to the Jews more succinctly. Citing the Passover service statement “next year in Jerusalem,” Moses hoped that America, not Israel, would be the place where Jews would gather. He described America as a New Jerusalem, citing the freedom, civic equality and dignity offered to Jews. He said America should be the Jews’ “land of milk and honey.”  

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