The courthouse building from the colonial period in Williamsburg, Virginia..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The story of the first Jews in colonial America is a compelling one.
Sephardi Jews from England and Holland, as well as those who had escaped persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, made their way to the colonies in the United States beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, while Ashkenazi Jews made their way to the colonies from Poland, Austria, Germany and Russia to find refuge and establish a better life.
In a bid to include this Jewish history as part of early America’s story, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia acquired its first Judaica items in April from the period when the first Jews were living in Britain’s 13 American colonies. These include a sterling silver and gold kiddush cup, and a silver and gold yad (a pointer for reading the Torah). According to the foundation, the earliest documentation of Jews in Virginia dates back to the 1620s, with the arrival of Elias LeGarde, Joseph Moise and Rebecca Isaacke.
According to a report by Antique Trader, the silver and gold kiddush cup was made in London probably by William Harrison I in about 1775, while the yad was made in Birmingham, England, around 1843. Chinese porcelain plates and saucers, as well as an alphabet sampler, made by a young Jewish girl named Rachel Cole have also been added to the Judaica collection.
“The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation sees the objects in its collections as documents of the people, places and events of the past,” Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums, told the Antique Trader.
“Because we use these objects to tell the compelling stories of early Americans, we seek to acquire things that speak to the full range of their experiences, whatever their race, religion, gender, age, or cultural ethnicity may have been,” he explained. “These latest acquisitions mark important steps toward that goal.”
An article written on the history of Williamsburg’s Jewry in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities tells how the community remained small until the mid-20th century.
Jews in Williamsburg were not able to gain citizenship because the law stated that they had to swear over the Christian bible and pledge their allegiance to Jesus. That law was repealed when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom in 1777, which granted equality and the right to worship to Jews.
The article explains that there was only one Jew who lived permanently in Williamsburg during the colonial period, Dr. John de Sequeyra, who immigrated to Virginia from London in 1745. He had studied medicine in Holland, and practiced medicine after moving to Williamsburg, where he treated 85 households during a smallpox epidemic of 1747 and 1748. There was no congregation for de Sequeyra to attend while living in Williamsburg, and no established Jewish community.
There are records of Jews who passed through Williamsburg during the 17th and 18th centuries on business, however, there is not much evidence to suggest that any lived or settled there for long periods of time, the encyclopedia article explained.
There were Jewish families, however, who owned stores and factories in Williamsburg but did not reside in the city. Although some Jews attended Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary in the latter part of the 18th century, they did not remain in town after finishing their studies.
Most Jews who settled in Virginia during the colonial period lived in Charlottesville, Richmond and later Norfolk.