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Digital History ID 2998

 

Twenty-three refugees from Portuguese Brazil who arrived in New Amsterdam in the summer of 1654 were the first Jews to settle in the American colonies. At the time of the Revolution, the American Jewish population numbered no more than 1,500. There were no more than five or six Jewish congregations in the colonies, no Jewish newspapers, and not a single rabbi.

During the early 19th century, the Jewish population remained small. By 1812, New York City had the new nation's largest Jewish population--just 50 families. In 1816, the first organized Protestant efforts to convert Jews to Christianity began. These efforts sensitized American Jews to their distinctive identity and encouraged Jewish communities to establish their own schools, hospitals, and synagogues and appoint foreign rabbis as religious leaders.

By 1850, migration from central and western Europe increased the Jewish population from approximately 2,000 to 50,000. Thousands of immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Hungary in the 1850s tripled the size of the Jewish population to 150,000 in 1860.

A major challenge American Jews were confronted with was adapting religious orthodoxy to the realities of American life. Most early 19th century Jews lived in small towns where it was impossible to obey traditional laws--towns lacked synagogues, a mikvah (ritual bath), a ritual circumciser, and a kosher butcher. Many Jews also found it impossible to refrain from working on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday.

As early as 1824, a group of Jews in Charleston, S.C., organized one of the country's first Reformed congregations. Their aim was to modify "such parts of the prevailing system of Worship, as are inconsistent with the present enlightened state of society, and not in accordance with the Five Books of Moses and the Prophets." Contrary to Orthodox practice, they worshiped from an English language prayer book, with their heads uncovered, while listening to instrumental music. In later years, many other congregations "Americanized" their rituals by playing organ music during services, permitting men and women to worship side by side, allowing men to prayer without the traditional prayer shawl and head covering, and establishing confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls.

American Jews avidly formed community and charitable institutions. Even small towns that lacked Jewish congregations had a B'nai B'rith, a lodge and benevolent society founded in 1843, or a Young Men's Hebrew Association (the first was formed in 1854), as well as separate orphan asylums and burial societies.

Jews experienced less discrimination and persecution than Catholics or Mormons in part because of their small numbers and in part because the Jewish community was scattered and decentralized--and therefore did not provoke fears of conspiracy. Equally important, Jews shed distinctive dress and shaved long sideburns that set European Jews apart. But Jews vigorously resisted threats to their identity, strongly opposing state laws that limited membership in state legislatures to Christians and that banned commerce on the Christian Sabbath, as well as efforts of Christian missionaries to convert them and the recitation of Christian prayers in public schools. Pre-Civil War Jews engaged in an uneasy balancing act: they struggled to shed the appearance of foreignness and modernize Jewish traditions while sustaining Jewish distinctiveness.

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