This Week in History: New York’s first synagogue

The first Jewish community to arrive in America consecrates their first synagogue 46 years before the revolutionary war.

New York first synagogue_311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
New York first synagogue_311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On April 8, 1730, New York’s only Jewish congregation gathered in the heart of what is now Manhattan’s financial district to consecrate its first synagogue. The congregation of Shearith Israel, North America’s oldest to this day, would go on to influence the establishment of some of US Jewry’s most influential and lasting institutions in the New World.
In the fall of 1654, 23 Jews aboard the Santa Catarina arrived in what was then New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. Descendants of Jews who had fled the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions to The Netherlands, the small community had settled in Dutch colonies in South America. Fearing a repeat of the persecution they faced in Europe, the small community once again left their homes and sought refuge when the Portuguese recaptured Recife in 1654.
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The Jews’ arrival in New Amsterdam, however, was not immediately hospitable. Like their ancestors in Eygpt, the future-congregation of Shearith Israel was forced to depart quickly and with few belongings. Upon arrival, the captain of the Santa Catarina sold their remaining effects at auction to pay for their fare. The local governor for the New Amsterdam Company, not thrilled by their arrival, wrote to his superiors asking that “none of the Jewish Nation be permitted to infest New Netherland.” In reply, however, the company described his request as “inconsistent with reason and justice,” the New York Times reported in 1899. Shearith Israel was henceforth given express permission to settle in the New World.
From its first days, the Jewish community of New York and its sister congregation in Providence, Rhode Island fully participated in the fledgling American project into which it was welcomed. Members of the Shearith Israel congregation fought in the American Revolutionary War against the British, including a colonel who served as an aid to General George Washington. Other notable Jews from Shearith Israel helped found the New York Stock Exchange and would serve on the US Supreme Court in later days.
After renting various spaces of worship for decades, in 1730 the members of Shearith Israel consecrated their first permanent synagogue on Mill Street in lower Manhattan (South William Street today). Until 1865, it was the only established Jewish congregation in New York but in the late 19th and early 20th century, the birth of several other Jewish streams, movements, congregations and institutions were highly influenced by Shearith Israel’s leadership and members.
One of the major splits and restructuring was greatly influenced by a failed experiment to bring a chief rabbi in order to unite and supervise New York’s growing and divided Jewish communities. In the nearly two centuries of Jewish presence in America, individuals and groups had sought different paths at reconciling the individualistic, capitalist and democratic spirit of the United States. Many saw Orthodox Judaism as a relic that belonged in the Old World.
In an attempt to counter this trend, several orthodox communities invited Rabbi Jacob Joseph to be the first chief rabbi of New York. Joseph, however, faced great suspicion and even disdain from liberal and Reform Jewish communities as well as non-religious and socialist Jews. His lack of fluency in English and “Old World” ways, in addition to economic resentment by poorer Jews over demands to support Joseph quickly doomed the new and short-lived position of chief rabbi. Even among the orthodox communities, the very leaders who brought him from Lithuania abandoned him. Joseph died several years later.
After Joseph’s death, the position of chief rabbi was dissolved and the experiment aimed at unifying American Jewry was abandoned. In light of the failure, the Orthodox Union was established as part of ensuing efforts to consolidate unification within orthodox communities.
Shearith Israel’s rabbi at the time, Henry Pereira Mendes, was one of the founders of the American Jewish Theological Seminary. After the death of Rabbi Joseph, he saw a need to build a more democratic consolidation of Orthodox Judaism. He soon left the JTS to help found the Orthodox Union. With his departure, however, JTS moved towards become one of the Conservative Movement’s (Masorti) central institutions.
A New York Times article from 1884 notes the growing split taking place in the synagogue, in which more reform-minded members sought to change the character of the congregation. Decidedly voting to remain an orthodox congregation, Shearith Israel has since been associated with the Orthodox Union.
Housed today in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the congregation of Shearith Israel continues to be an important foundation of American Jewish history; it played a pivotal role in the establishment of various Jewish streams and institutions. The current synagogue – the congregation’s fifth – is a lauded architectural landmark built in the tradition of Portuguese Jewry. Its members are the descendants of America’s oldest Jewish community, established over 100 years before the United States, and its synagogue was the first permanent house of worship built by Jews in New York.