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This article originally appeared in "Jewish American Research" by Gary Mokotoff in ‘The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy’

See also Historical Jewish population comparisons


The first Jews to come to North America arrived in 1654 at the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (renamed New York in 1664). Most were refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil, which was conquered by the Portuguese that year. The Jews, fearing persecution from the Portuguese Inquisition, left with plans to go to Holland, the home of many Sephardic Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition 150 years earlier. However, they ran out of money and were forced to land at the Dutch colony.

Because Jews in the New World were allowed to practice their religion in a relatively nondiscriminatory environment, record books of American synagogues exist back to colonial times. Besides New York, early Jewish settlements were founded in Savannah, Georgia (1733); Philadelphia (1745); Charleston, South Carolina (1749); Newport, Rhode Island (1763); and Richmond, Virginia (1789).

There are records for this period at the American Jewish Historical Society and the American Jewish Archives, as well as at the synagogue archives themselves.

The definitive genealogical work, now out of print, is First American Jewish Families by Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, fasg.1 It contains the genealogies (descendants) of every Jewish person known to the author who arrived in the United States before 1838 who remained Jewish for at least one generation. Some fifty thousand persons are identified in it.


Much information about this group can be found using conventional American genealogical resources; little is available through synagogue records. Family historians who have attempted to do German emigration research, Jewish or Christian, know about the paucity of information available for tracing ancestry back to Germany. Ship manifests and citizenship papers provide no clues as to ancestral towns in Germany, so genealogists must dig for information. Family records or death records may hold clues. For example, Jewish immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century are among the most difficult of Jewish ancestors to document; however, Jewish tombstones of German immigrants have been known to indicate the town of birth. Check census records as well; census takers sometimes wrote down the town of birth rather than the country of birth on the census record.

Most German Jews left through the ports of Hamburg and Bremen. Emigration lists from Hamburg for the years 1850 to 1934 have survived and are available on microfilm through the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two separate indexes exist, both arranged by year. One, called the direct index, lists ships that sailed directly to the United States. The other, the indirect index, lists ships that stopped at other ports prior to coming across the Atlantic. Virtually no lists from Bremen exist today. They were destroyed in periodic purges. The earliest surviving lists are from 1920. Gyugyugujygjuy gbguyyfyyjfjutybfut


In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, and the Russians blamed it on the Jews. Decades of pogroms against the Jewish population followed. This anti-Semitism, along with deplorable economic conditions, drove millions of Jews from Eastern Europe; 2 million went to the United States. Most Jewish Americans are descended from these persons, and there is a wealth of genealogical information about them.


To learn more about this wave of immigrants (Jewish and others), the U.S. government began documenting them more carefully during the 1890s. Passenger arrival records included age, occupation, nationality, town of last residence, final destination, and other data. Starting in 1906, place of birth was added, and in 1907, name and address of the nearest relative in the immigrant's native country were added. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has on microfilm the ship manifests and indexes to these lists. Most of these have been digitized and placed on the Internet. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has records for Ellis Island from 1892'1924 online at with an every-name index, but superior access to these images can be found at Records of Castle Garden, predecessor to Ellis Island can be found at, as well as on also provides indexes and images of other ports, including Baltimore, Boston, Galveston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other ports of less interest to Jewish research. Copies of these microfilms are available through the Family History Library and regional branches of the National Archives. If access to any of these Internet sites or facilities is difficult, you can request copies by writing to the National Archives, Washington, DC 20408.


Most Jewish immigrants became citizens of the United States. Even those who decided not to complete the process usually went through the first step by filling out a declaration of intention. The declaration of intention form included a number of questions, such as date of birth, date of marriage, arrival date, name of ship, current address, and, in certain years, name at time of arrival in the United States. Consequently, declarations of intention are valuable resources for Jewish American research. Because the submitter was the actual immigrant, it is not unusual to find more accurate information, such as birth dates, in citizenship papers. The location of these papers depends on which court naturalized the individual. If the certificate of naturalization, thought by many to be the 'citizenship papers,' is in the family's possession, it will show the county, state, or federal court in which the citizen was naturalized. Contact the court to learn the current location of the records.

Another way to determine the court of naturalization is through voter registration records. Immigrants had to prove their citizenship, and these records often indicate the court where naturalized. Contact the board of elections where the immigrant lived to determine if the records still exist. Otherwise, the long (six months to one year) route must be taken: contact the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington, DC 20530. Some naturalization records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. For more information on naturalization records, see chapter 9, 'Immigration Records.'


Jewish immigrants formed societies based on their towns of origin; these were called landsmanshaftn societies. Membership in such a group invariably meant that the person came from the town or a neighboring town. One function of these groups was to buy land in a Jewish cemetery. Even if it cannot be determined that an ancestor was a member of a landsmanshaftn society, burial in a plot owned by such a group implies that the ancestor came from that town. (Be aware that the burial societies also sold burial plots to outsiders, so such evidence is not conclusive.) The archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 15 W. 16th St., New York, NY 10011, has a large number of records of these societies. The institute has published its holdings in A Guide to YIVO's Landsmanshaftn Archive.2


Because this period is contemporary, a principal source of information is the individuals themselves or their children. A wealth of twentieth-century documentation on Americans described elsewhere in this book can be used as well.


Holocaust survivors who were friends and neighbors of victims can often provide valuable information. The National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors contains the names of more than one hundred thousand survivors and their families living in the United States and Canada. The book is available in many Holocaust centers and major libraries. A list of institutions can be found at The organization that created the registry will forward letters to survivors. Write to the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, 122 W. 30th St., New York, NY 10001.


AISH, Rabbi Ken Spiro

The amazing story of Jewish influence on the founding fathers of American democracy.

The creation of the United States of America represented a unique event in world history – founded as a modern republic, it was rooted in the Bible, and one of its earliest tenets was religious tolerance.

This is because many of the earliest pilgrims who settled the "New England" of America in early 17th century were Puritan refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe.

These Puritans viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. To them, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land.

Thanksgiving ― first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed ― was initially conceived as a day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; it was to be a day of fasting, introspection and prayer.

Writes Gabriel Sivan in The Bible and Civilization (p. 236):

"No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation... these émigré Puritans dramatized their own situation as the righteous remnant of the Church corrupted by the 'Babylonian woe,' and saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai."

Previously, during the Puritan Revolution in England, (1642-1648) some Puritan extremists had even sought to replace English common law with Biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of Biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies and this was exactly what these early colonists set out to do.

The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony:

"Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men as well as in the government of families and commonwealth as in matters of the Church... the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation." (1)

Subsequently, the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code ― the Code of 1655 ― which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained Biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641 adopted the so-called "Capitall Laws of New England" based almost entirely on Mosaic law.

Of course, without a Jewish Oral Tradition, which helped the Jews understand the Bible, the Puritans were left to their own devices and tended toward a literal interpretation. This led in some instances to a stricter, more fundamentalist observance than Judaism had ever seen.


The Hebrew Bible also played a central role in the founding of various educational institutions including Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, Kings College (later to be known as Columbia), Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth etc.

Many of these colleges even adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal. Beneath the banner containing the Latin "Lux et Veritas," the Yale seal shows an open book with the Hebrew "Urim V'Timum," which was a part of the breastplate of the High Priest in the days of the Temple. The Columbia seal has the Hebrew name for God at the top center, with the Hebrew name for one of the angels on a banner toward the middle. Dartmouth uses the Hebrew words meaning "God Almighty" in a triangle in the upper center of its seal.

So popular was the Hebrew Language in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew ― all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered it. (In America, Bible study and Hebrew were course requirements in virtually all these colleges and students had the option of delivering commencement speeches in either Hebrew, Latin or Greek.)(2)

Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of these American Universities ― for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary, James Madison Princeton, Alexander Hamilton King's College (i.e. Columbia). Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments, but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew.

Notes Abraham Katsch in The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (p. 70):

"At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that 'certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.'"


Their Biblical education colored the American founders' attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. We see them adopting the biblical motifs of the Puritans for political reasons. For example, the struggle of the ancient Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny. Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies were identified with the ancient Hebrews.

Whereas, these words echo the ideas of the Enlightenment (see Part 53), without a doubt, the concept that these rights come from God is of Biblical origin.

This and the other documents of early America make it clear that the concept of a God-given standard of morality is a central pillar of American democracy. The motto "IN GOD WE TRUST" first appeared on U. S. currency in 1864 and an a 1956 Act of Congress (largely passed as a counterforce to Godless communism) made it the official motto if the United States.

Many more things can be said about the Jewish influence on the values of America, but this is, after all, a crash course. We next turn to the Jews themselves.


The history of Jews in America begins before the United States was an independent country.

The first Jews arrived in America with Columbus in 1492, and we also know that Jews newly-converted to Christianity were among the first Spaniards to arrive in Mexico with Conquistador Hernando Cortez in 1519.

In fact, so many Jewish conversos came to Mexico that the Spanish made a rule precluding anyone who could not prove Catholic ancestry for four generations back from migrating there. Needless to say, the Inquisition soon followed to make sure these Jewish conversos were not really heretics, and burnings at the stake became a regular feature of life in Mexico City.

As for North America, the recorded Jewish history there begins in 1654 with the arrival in New Amsterdam (later to be known as New York) of 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil (where the Dutch had just lost their possessions to the Portuguese). New Amsterdam was also a Dutch possession, but the governor Peter Stuyvesant did not want them there. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 21):

"Two weeks after they landed, Stuyvesant heard the complaint from the local merchants and from the Church that 'the Jews who had arrived would nearly all like to remain here.' Stuyvesant decided to chase them out. Using the usual formulas of religious invective ― he called the Jews 'repugnant,' 'deceitful,' and 'enemies and blasphemers of Christ' ― Stuyvesant recommended to his directors... 'to require them in a friendly way to depart.'"

The only reasons the Jews were not turned out was that the Dutch West Indian Company, which was heavily depended on Jewish investments, blocked it.


By 1776 and the War of Independence, there were an estimated 2,000 (mostly Sephardic) Jews (men, women and children) living in America, yet their contribution to the cause was significant. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of freedom. In Georgia, the first patriot to be killed was a Jew (Francis Salvador). And additionally, the Jews provided significant financing for the patriots.

The most important of the financiers was Haym Salomon who lent a great deal of money to the Continental Congress. In the last days of the war, Salomon advanced the American government $200,000. He was never paid back and died bankrupt.

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when the first synagogue opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. (It was called the Touro Synagogue and it was Sephardic.) He sent this letter, dated August 17, 1790:

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Note the reference to the "vine and fig-tree." That unique phrase is a reference to the words of Prophet Michah prophesying the Messianic utopia:

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. And many nations shall come, and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.' And he shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning far away strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.

This was an interesting choice of words on the part of Washington, but, as noted above, it is not surprising in light of the enormous influence that the Hebrew Bible had on the pilgrims and on the founding fathers of the new nation.


It must be noted, however, that some of the other founding fathers were a bit more ambivalent about the Jews than was Washington.

John Adams, who said some highly complimentary things about the Jews,(3) also noted that "it is very hard work to love most of them [the Jews]. And he looked forward to the day when "the asperities and peculiarities of their character" would be worn away and they would become "liberal Unitarian Christians."

Thomas Jefferson thought Jews needed more secular learning so that "they will become equal object of respect and favor," implying that without such learning they could not expect to be respected. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 87):

"Jefferson was thus expressing the view of the mainstream of the Enlightenment, that all men could attain equal place in society, but the 'entrance fee' was that they should adopt the ways and the outlook of the 'enlightened.' Jefferson did not consider that a Yiddish-speaking Jew who knew the Talmud was equal in usefulness to society with a classically trained thinker like himself."

This idea that there was freedom for you in America as long as you were not "too Jewish," kept most Jews away. Until 1820, the Jewish population of America was only about 6,000!

This changed in the 1830s when Reform German Jews, who had scrapped traditional Judaism and were not "too Jewish," began to arrive. The great migrations of poor, oppressed Jews from Eastern Europe would follow near the turn of the century. But before we take up that story, we must look to see what was happening to the Jews of Europe.


(1) Abraham Katsh, The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, (New York, 1977), p. 97.

(2) Ibid., 51-72.

(3) John Adams in a letter to F.A. Van Der Kemp, 16 February 1809: "... I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of another sect... I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate for all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization… They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a bauble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern." As quoted in: Allan Gould, What Did They Think of the Jews, (New Jersey, 1997), pp. 71-72.

the National Humanities Center, Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden, Brandeis University

American Jewish history commenced in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Spain. This action set off a period of intense Jewish migration. Seeking to escape the clutches of the Holy Inquisition, some Jews in the sixteenth century sought refuge in the young Calvinist republic of The Netherlands. A century later, hundreds of their descendants crossed the ocean to settle in the new Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil, where Jewish communal life became possible for the first time in the New World. When Portugal recaptured this colony in 1654, its Jews scattered. Refugees spread through the Dutch Caribbean, beginning fresh Jewish communities. A boatload of about 23 Jews sailed into the remote Dutch port of New Amsterdam and requested permission to remain. This marked the beginning of Jewish communal life in North America.

Colonial Jews never exceeded one tenth of one percent of the American population, yet they established patterns of Jewish communal life that persisted for generations.

First, most Jews lived in cosmopolitan port cities like New York and Newport where opportunities for commerce and trade abounded, and people of diverse backgrounds and faiths lived side by side.

Second, many early American Jewish leaders and institutions were Sephardic, meaning that their origins traced to the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula. Sephardic Jews maintained cultural hegemony in Jewish life into the early nineteenth century, although by then Ashkenazi Jews, meaning Jews who traced their origins to Germany, had long been more numerous.

Third, Jews organized into synagogue-communities. Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport each had one synagogue that assumed responsibility for the religious and communal needs of all local Jews.

The American Revolution marked a turning point not only in American Jewish history, but in modern Jewish history generally. Never before had a major nation committed itself so definitively to the principles of freedom and democracy in general and to religious freedom in particular. Jews and members of other minority religions could dissent from the religious views of the majority without fear of persecution. Jews still had to fight for their rights on the state level, and they continued to face various forms of prejudice nationwide. However, many Jews benefited materially from the Revolution and interacted freely with their non-Jewish neighbors. Having shed blood for their country side by side with their Christian fellows, Jews as a group felt far more secure than they had in colonial days. They asserted their rights openly and, if challenged, defended themselves both vigorously and self-confidently.

In the nineteenth century, American Jews, seeking to strengthen Judaism against its numerous Christian competitors in the marketplace of American religions, introduced various religious innovations, some of them borrowed from their neighbors. Young Jews in Charleston, dissatisfied with the "apathy and neglect" they saw manifested toward their religion, somewhat influenced by the spread of Unitarianism, fearful of Christian missionary activities that had begun to be directed toward local Jews, and, above all, passionately concerned about Jewish survival in a free society, created the breakaway "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit." This was America's first Reform congregation, with an abbreviated service, vernacular prayers, and regular sermons. Traditional congregations also "Protestantized" some of their practices, introducing regular English sermons and more decorous modes of worship.

Meanwhile, communal leaders, led by the Traditionalist Jewish religious leader of Philadelphia, Isaac Leeser, emulated and adapted Protestant benevolent and education techniques--Sunday schools, hospitals, the religious press, charitable societies, and the like--in order to strengthen Judaism in the face of pressures upon Jews to convert. Among other things, Leeser produced an Anglo-Jewish translation of the Bible, founded a Jewish publication society, and edited a Jewish periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, which attempted in its pages to unite the diverse voices of the American Jewish community. He also rallied his community to respond to incidents of anti-Jewish persecution around the world.

Even though Ashkenazic Jews outnumbered Sephardic Jews as early as 1720, the first German Jewish immigrants joined Sephardic synagogues rather than founding their own institutions. As poverty, persecution, and political disillusionment swept through Central Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, German and Polish Jewish immigration to America swelled. Distinctly German-speaking Jewish institutions multiplied. Jews also moved beyond the Eastern seaboard at this time, seeking opportunities in the frontier communities of the Midwest, South, and West.

In the 1840s, in contrast to the early American model of synagogues run by a hazan (cantor) or lay leadership, immigrant rabbis began to assume the pulpits of American synagogues. Some sought to promote Orthodoxy, while others merged the ideology of German Jewish Reform with the practices of American Protestant denominations and created a new American version of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, a leader of American Reform Judaism, sought to develop a Minhag-America (American liturgical custom) that would unite Jews around moderate Reform Judaism. The founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873) and Hebrew Union College (1875) in Cincinnati sought to actualize his vision. But even as rabbis hoped to unite the community, the greatest legacy of the so-called "German period" is actually Jewish religious diversity. By the Civil War, every American Jewish congregation had at least two synagogues, and major ones had four or more.

The Civil War divided Jews much as it did the nation as a whole. There were Jews in the North and Jews in the South, Jews who supported slavery and Jews who condemned it, Jews who fought for the Union and Jews who fought for the Confederacy. If in many respects the Civil War affected Jews much as it did other Americans, there were nevertheless three features of the struggle that affected Jews uniquely.

First, wartime tensions led to an upsurge of racial and religious prejudice in America, and Jews, both in the North and in the South, proved to be convenient scapegoats. Even famous Americans slipped into anti-Semitic stereotypes when they meant to condemn one Jew alone.

Second, Jews in the North (not in this case the South) had to fight for their right to have a Jewish army chaplain--no easy task, since by law an army chaplain had to be a "regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination." Although President Lincoln himself urged that this law be amended, it took heavy Jewish lobbying and over a year of hard work until the amendment to the law was passed.

Third, and most shocking of all to Jews, they had to face the most sweeping anti-Jewish official order in all of American history--General Order No. 11, published on December 17, 1862, that expelled all Jews from General Grant's military department. An irate and highly prejudiced response to wartime smuggling and speculating, crimes engaged in by Jews and non-Jews alike, it met with forceful Jewish protests. Within eighteen days, thanks to President Lincoln, the order was revoked.

In the 1880s, the profile of Jewish immigration to the United States was profoundly changed by the pogroms directed against the Jews of Russia, leading to an infusion of young Eastern European Jews who were religiously traditional and spoke Yiddish [the historical language of Ashkenazic Jews; a dialect of High German that includes some Hebrew elements]. Swept into a new and alien culture, cut off from loved ones left behind, and in many cases forced to violate religious tenets once held dear, immigrants frequently spent lifetimes trying to reconcile what they had left behind with what they had gained. Many cursed Columbus and wondered aloud if their travail was justified. A few returned to Europe. But in the wake of the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and subsequent persecutions in Russia and elsewhere, the promise of American life shined ever brighter. By 1924, close to two million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to America's shores.

Initially many native and German-born Jews in America looked down on these newcomers as social inferiors and felt ambivalent toward them. They saw themselves outnumbered, feared that immigration was provoking antisemitism, and worried that the East Europeans would never assimilate. Yet, bad as feelings sometimes became, most of these Jews continued to work long and hard on behalf of the East Europeans. The latter, meanwhile, strongly identified with American society and labored to Americanize. In the twentieth century, when issues such as immigration restriction and bills aimed at abrogating America's commercial treaty with Russia arose, German Jews and Eastern European Jews stood shoulder to shoulder; they planned strategy together. Bonds of kinship, in the end, proved far stronger than petty in-group squabbles.


Notwithstanding the small size of the Jewish community in early America, it is important to emphasize to students that American Jews of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like their counterparts in the larger society, established patterns that subsequent generations carefully followed. American Judaism, at this time, became both voluntaristic and pluralistic. In America a Jew's faith was not registered with the state, as it was in most of Europe, and observance depended upon the individual. In a sense, there came to be as many Judaisms as there were Jews. Like so many of their Protestant counterparts, Jews resisted the hierarchical religious authority structures of Europe. No nationwide "chief rabbi" emerged and no religious organization wielded unchallenged authority. Instead, a spectrum of Jewish religious movements competed for adherents, each insisting that its strategy alone provided hope for American Judaism's survival. Ultimately, of course, each strategy sought to balance between American norms and values and the sometimes conflicting demands of Jewish tradition--a balancing act familiar to any number of minority groups in the United States.

While Protestant practices inevitably influenced the direction of American Jewish religious life, Jews monitored Protestant missionary efforts with caution. Activities that Protestants viewed as benevolent (like offering money and free education to the Jewish poor) seemed provocative to Jews, almost inducements to convert. Jews also took affront at the distinctions that some Protestants drew between the "mythical Jews" that they learned about in church and the "Jews next door" who seemed altogether different. Educators can effectively use these themes to discuss intergroup relations, stereotypes, and the tensions between majority and minority in the American experience.

The story of Jewish immigration to America can be incorporated into broader discussions concerning immigration and the promise of American life. Students should understand the manifold challenges that immigrants faced as they sought to pursue freedom and opportunity while still seeking to retain their cultural identity. They should also explore the ambivalence so commonly felt toward immigrants, even by those who themselves descended from similar roots and shared the immigrants' heritage and faith.


A central question in American Jewish history concerns the relative influence of Old and New World patterns on American Jews, a debate that echoes the longstanding controversy over whether or not America itself is historically unique. In terms of the Reform Movement in Judaism, some scholars thus view it as mostly an offshoot of German Reform Judaism, while others are more impressed by its distinctively American qualities. Similarly, some view nineteenth-century American Jewish history as a whole as an "encounter with emancipation," thereby defining it in terms of a central paradigm in European Jewish history--the struggle of Jews to gain full civil rights in Europe in the late 1800s. Other scholars are more impressed by the differences between the European and American Jewish situations. American Jewry, they insist, was "post-emancipation" from the start.

A different kind of question concerns the nature of nineteenth-century Jewish immigration to the United States. Earlier historians spoke of three immigration waves--the Sephardic period, the German period, and the East European period. More recent scholars have challenged this periodization. Not only are there vast overlaps between the different periods (East European Jews found their way to America even in colonial days), but we now know that Jewish immigration was much more variegated and complex than once believed, involving Jews from many different lands. In the mid nineteenth century, for example, there were more Polish-Jewish immigrants to America than German ones. At least one historian advocates dropping the earlier periodization altogether to focus on the full century of Jewish immigration, beginning in 1820, that transformed American Jewry from a tiny community of some 3,000 Jews to a community that was more than one thousand times larger--indeed, the largest Jewish community in the world.


For other key issues in American Jewish history, as well as an extensive bibliography, see Jonathan D. Sarna, ed., The American Jewish Experience: A Reader (2d ed., 1997). Primary sources may be found in Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the American World: A Source Book (1996) and Morris U. Schappes, A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875 (3rd ed., 1971). The most thorough scholarly treatment of colonial American Jewry is Jacob Rader Marcus's The Colonial American Jew (1970). For a recent briefer treatment, see Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820 (1992). On the Revolutionary period, Samuel Rezneck's Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution (1975) provides a helpful narrative, and Jonathan D. Sarna, Benny Kraut, and Samuel K. Joseph, eds., Jews and the Founding of the American Republic (1985) contains the major documents. For a good overview of the early national period, see the first volume of Jacob Racer Marcus, United States Jewry, 1776-1985 (1989). Biographies of leading American Jews of this period include Jonathan D. Sarna, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (1981), Gary P. Zola, Isaac Harby of Charleston, 1788-1829: Jewish Reformer and Intellectual (1994), and Lance Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism (1995).

The key questions concerning Central European Jewish immigration revolve around religion and identity. Avraham Barkai's Branching Out (1994) and Naomi W. Cohen's Encounter with Emancipation: The German Jews in the United States, 1830-1914 (1984) describe continuities and discontinuities between the American and German Jewish experiences, while Leon Jick, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870 (1976) traces the development of American Judaism as a process of indigenous religious innovation. Hasia Diner in A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (1992) offers a broader portrayal of this period, paying attention to Alsatian and Polish Jews, as well as to issues of gender. The key volume on the Civil War is Bertram W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (2d. ed., 1970).

Because most of the contemporary American Jewish community descends from Eastern European Jewish immigrants, much of the literature of American Jewish history documents their story. Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976) synthesizes much of what was known to that time. More recently, Susan Glenn's Daughters of the Shtetl (1990) captures the challenges that faced Jewish immigrant girls, particularly in the labor movement. Jonathan D. Sarna, People Walk on Their Heads: Moses Weinberger's "Jews and Judaism in New York" (1981) makes available an Orthodox rabbi's perspective on America from 1887. Finally, Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (1997) focuses on the immigrants themselves and how they "exercised a high degree of agency in their growing identification with American society."


In a long tradition of “persecuting the refugee,”
the State Department and FDR claimed
that Jewish immigrants could threaten national security
Smithsonian, Daniel A. Gross  November 18, 2015


In the summer of 1942, the SS Drottningholm set sail carrying hundreds of desperate Jewish refugees, en route to New York City from Sweden. Among them was Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old from Germany, who was also seeking entry to the United States. When he arrived, he told the same story as his fellow passengers: As a victim of persecution, he wanted asylum from Nazi violence.

But during a meticulous interview process that involved five separate government agencies, Bahr's story began to unravel. Days later, the FBI accused Bahr of being a Nazi spy. They said the Gestapo had given him $7,000 to steal American industrial secrets—and that he'd posed as a refugee in order to sneak into the country unnoticed. His case was rushed to trial, and the prosecution called for the death penalty.

What Bahr didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t mind, was that his story would be used as an excuse to deny visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

World War II prompted the largest displacement of human beings the world has ever seen—although today's refugee crisis is starting to approach its unprecedented scale. But even with millions of European Jews displaced from their homes, the United States had a poor track record offering asylum. Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.

Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Yet today, historians believe that Bahr's case was practically unique—and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.

In the court of public opinion, the story of a spy disguised as a refugee was too scandalous to resist. America was months into the largest war the world had ever seen, and in February 1942, Roosevelt had ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans. Every day the headlines announced new Nazi conquests.

Bahr was “scholarly” and “broad-shouldered,” a man Newsweek called “the latest fish in the spy net.” Bahr was definitely not a refugee; he had been born in Germany, but immigrated to the U.S. in his teens and become a naturalized citizen. He returned to Germany in 1938 as an engineering exchange student in Hanover, where he was contacted by the Gestapo.

At his preliminary hearing, the Associated Press reported that Bahr was “nattily clad in gray and smiling pleasantly.” By the time his trial began, he had little reason to smile; in a hefty 37-page statement, he admitted to attending spy school in Germany. His defense was that he'd planned to reveal everything to the U.S. government. But he sad he'd stalled because he was afraid. “Everywhere, no matter where, there are German agents,” he claimed.

Comments like these only fed widespread fears of a supposed “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs that had infiltrated America. U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle said in 1942 that “every precaution must be prevent enemy agents slipping across our borders. We already have had experience with them and we know them to be well trained and clever.” The FBI, meanwhile, released propaganda films that bragged about German spies who had been caught. “We have guarded the secrets, given the Army and Navy its striking force in the field,” one film said.

These suspicions were not only directed at ethnic Germans. “All foreigners became suspect. Jews were not considered immune,” says Richard Breitman, a scholar of Jewish history.

The American ambassador to France, William Bullitt, made the unsubstantiated statement that France fell in 1940 partly because of a vast network of spying refugees. “More than one-half the spies captured doing actual military spy work against the French Army were refugees from Germany,” he said. “Do you believe there are no Nazi and Communist agents of this sort in America?”

These kinds of anxieties weren't new, says Philip Orchard, a historian of international refugee policy. When religious persecution in the 17th century led to the flight of thousands of French Huguenots—the first group ever referred to as “refugees”—European nations worried that accepting them would lead to war with France. Later, asylum seekers themselves became objects of suspicion. “With the rise of anarchism at the turn of the 20th century, there were unfounded fears that anarchists would pose as refugees to enter countries to engage in violence,” Orchard says.

These suspicions seeped into American immigration policy. In late 1938, American consulates were flooded with 125,000 applicants for visas, many coming from Germany and the annexed territories of Austria. But national quotas for German and Austrian immigrants had been set firmly at 27,000.

Immigration restrictions actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened. Wartime measures demanded special scrutiny of anyone with relatives in Nazi territories—even relatives in concentration camps. At a press conference, President Roosevelt repeated the unproven claims from his advisers that some Jewish refugees had been coerced to spy for the Nazis. “Not all of them are voluntary spies,” Roosevelt said. “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

Here and there, skeptics objected. As the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out in her book Beyond Belief, The New Republic portrayed the government’s attitude as “persecuting the refugee.” The Nation didn’t believe that the State Department could “cite a single instance of forced espionage.” But these voices were drowned out in the name of national security.

America's policies created a striking dissonance with the news from Nazi Germany. In the Australian newspaper The Advertiser, above an update on Bahr's trial, a feature story put the refugee crisis in chilling context: “About 50,000 Jews from the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and from Berlin, Hamburg, and Westphalia have been dumped by the Nazis at Terezin.” Until the very end of 1944—by which time photographs and newspaper reports had demonstrated that the Nazis were carrying out mass murder—Attorney General Francis Biddle warned Roosevelt not to grant immigrant status to refugees.


Bahr “appeared weak” as he finished his testimony in August 1942. At the defense table, “he collapsed for a few minutes with his head in his hands.” On August 26, the jury reached a verdict: Bahr was guilty of conspiracy and planned espionage, a conviction that could warrant the death penalty.

The next day, Bahr's birthday, his wife announced that she planned to divorce him.

The case of Herbert Karl Freidrich Bahr fascinated the public for months, and with good reason; it showed readers a very real case of attempted spying, carried out with an utter disregard of its impact on innocent refugees. The question was what Americans should do with this knowledge.


Government agencies like the State Department used spy trials as fuel for the argument against accepting refugees. But late in the war, government whistleblowers began to question this approach. In 1944, the Treasury Department released a damning report initialed by lawyer Randolph Paul. It read:

“I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”

In an interview, Lipstadt says that the State Department’s attitude was shaped by wartime paranoia and downright bigotry. “All those things, they feed into this fear of the foreigner,” she says. It was thanks to the Treasury Department’s report that Roosevelt formed a new body, the War Refugee Board, that belatedly accepted tens of thousands Jewish refugees. But by that time, millions of Jews had already died in Europe.

Bahr lived to tell his tale. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. It's not clear whether he lived long enough to be released, but in 1946, after the war ended, he did make headlines again. The FBI called him to the stand in the trial of another accused spy. Once more, he told a rapt audience about spy tricks he learned from the Gestapo. Then he was sent back to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

With politicians in the U.S. and Europe again calling for refugee bans in the name of national security, it’s easy to see parallels with the history of World War II.

Lipstadt and Orchard think that although today’s refugee crisis isn’t identical to mass migration in World War II, the past could still offer lessons for the future. They say that this time around, governments should be careful not to rush quickly into new policies. “Simplistic kinds of answers—close all the doors to refugees, or welcome everyone—are dangerous, and ultimately counter-productive,” says Lipstadt.

Orchard highlights a related worry—“that we'll see short-sighted policies adopted that have real lasting effects.” He believes governments have historically succeeded at screening for refugees, which suggests that national security isn't at odds with welcoming them.

According to Breitman, the government, the media, and the public all share blame for the backlash against Jewish refugees during World War II. “I think the media went along with the fears of security-minded people,” he says. Among hundreds of thousands of refugees, there were only a handful of accused spies.

But that didn't stop them from making headlines. Says Breitman: “It was a good story.”

A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, 1988  pp566-

The expansion and consolidation of USA Jewry in the  nineteenth and twentieth centuries was as important in Jewish history as the creation of Israel itself; in some ways more important. For, if fulfilment of Zionism gave the harassed diaspora an ever-open refuge with sovereign rights to determine and defend its destiny, the growth of US Jewry was an accession of power of an altogether different order, which gave Jews an important, legitimate and permanent place in shaping the policies of the greatest state on earth. This was not
fragile Hofjuden influence but the consequences of democratic persuasion and demographic facts. At the end of the 1970s the Jewish population of the United States was 5,780,960. This was only 2.7% cent of total US population but it was disproportionately concentrated in urban areas, particularly big cities, which notoriously exert more cultural, social, economic and indeed political influence than small towns, villages and rural districts. Towards the end of the twentieth century the Jews were still big-city dwellers. There were 394,000 in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, over 300,000 in Paris, 285,000 in Moscow, 280,000 in Greater London, 272,000 in Jerusalem, 210,000 in Kiev, 165,000 in Leningrad, 115,000 in Montreal and 115,000 in Toronto. But the most impressive urban concentration was in the United States Metropolitan New York, with 1,998,000 Jews, was by far the largest Jewish city on earth. The second largest was Los Angeles with 455,000. Then followed Philadelphia (295,000), Chicago (253,000) Miami (225,000), Boston (17000) and Washington DC (160,000) Altogether there were sixty-nine American cities with a Jewish population of over 10,000. There was also a demographic concentration in  key states. In New York State 2,143,485 Jews constituted 12 per cent of the population. They formed 6 per cent in New Jersey 4.6 per cent in Florida, 4.5 per cent in Maryland, 4.4 per cent in Massachusetts, 3.6 per cent in Pennsylvania, 3.1 per cent in California and 2.4 per cent in Illinois. Of all the great American ethnic votes, the Jewish vote was the best organized, the most responsive to guidance by its leaders and the most likely to exert itself effectively.

However, it was possible to exaggerate the direct political impact of Jewish voters however well schooled. Since 1932 the Jews had voted overwhelmingly Democratic, sometimes by as high a proportion as 85-90 per cent. There was no clear evidence that Jewish influence on Democratic presidents or policy was proportionately decisive. In fact during the 1960s and 1970s the continuing fidelity of the Jewish voter to the Democratic Party appeared to be based increasingly on emotional historic grounds rather than on a community of interests. In the 1980s most Jews, somewhat to the surprise of psephologists, still voted Democrat, though the majority fell to around 60 percent. In the 1984 election they were the only religious group (apart from atheists) to give the Democratic candidate majority support, and the only ethnic group (apart from blacks). The Jews voted as they did not for communal economic or foreign policy reasons but from a residual sympathy for the poor and the underdog.80 By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the notion of the 'Jewish lobby’ in American politics had  become to some extent a myth.

What had happened, in the relationship of Jewish citizens to America as a whole, was something quite different and much more important: the transformation of the Jewish minority into a core element of American society. Throughout the twentieth century American Jews continued to take the fullest advantage of the opportunities America opened to them, to attend universities, to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, professional men and women of all kinds, politicians and public servants, as well as to thrive in finance and business, as they always had. They were particularly strong in the private enterprise sector, in press, publishing, broadcasting and entertainment, and in intellectual life generally. There were certain fields, such as the writing of fiction, where they were dominant. But they were numerous and successful everywhere. Slowly, then, during the second half of the century, this aristocracy of success became as ubiquitous and pervasive in its cultural influence as the earlier elite, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Jews ceased to be a lobby in American society. They became part of the natural organism itself, a limb, and a powerful one. They began to operate not from without the American body inwards, but from within it outwards. With their historic traditions of democracy, tolerance and liberalism, they assumed to some extent the same role in America as the Whigs had once played in England: an elite seeking moral justification for its privileges by rendering enlightened service to those less fortunate. In short, they were no longer a minority seeking rights but part of the majority conferring them; their political activity switched imperceptibly from influencing leadership to exercising it.

Hence it became hard to distinguish specifically Jewish element in American culture. They had become an integral and harmonious part of it. It was still harder to identify American policies which were in response to supposed Jewish interests. Such interests tended to become increasingly coterminous with America’s as a whole. This principle operated forcibly in the case of Israel. It was no longer needful to argue America’s leaders into guaranteeing Israel’s right to survive. That was taken for granted. Israel was a lonely outpost of liberal democracy upholding the rule of law and civilized standards of behaviour in an area where such values were generally disregarded. It was natural and inevitable that Israel should receive America’s support and the only argument was about how that support could be most judiciously provided. By the 1980s the realities of the world were such that Israel would have remained America’s most reliable ally in the Middle East and America her most trustworthy friend, even if the American Jewish community had not existed.

Yet that community did exist and it had achieved a unique status in the diaspora not merely by its size but by its character. It was a totally assimilated community which still retained its Jewish consciousness Its members thought of themselves as wholly American but as Jewish too. Such a phenomenon had never existed before in Jewish history, It was made possible by the peculiar circumstances of America’s growth and composition. The Jews, the eternal ‘strangers and sojourners’, at last found permanent rest in a country where all came as strangers Because all were strangers all had comparable right of residence until the point was reached when all, with equal justice, could call it home Then too, America was the first place in which the Jews had settled where they found their religion, and their religious observance, an advantage, because all religions which inculcated civic virtue were1 honoured. Not only that: America also, and above all, honoured the umbrella religion of its own, what might be called the Law of Democracy, a secular Torah which Jews were outstandingly well equipped to observe. For all these reasons it became perhaps misleading to see the American Jewish community as part of  the diaspora at all. Jews in America felt themselves more American than Jews in Israel felt themselves Israeli. It was necessary to coin a new word to define their condition, for American Jews came to form, along with the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora proper, the third leg of a new Jewish tripod, on which the safety and future of the whole people equally depended. There was the diaspora Jew, there was the ingathered Jew and, in America, there was the possessing Jew.   (This article was written in 1988.    The question becomes ‘Why?’.  One answer is here How American Jews Became Israeli Settlers   Politics, Michael Schulson, May 30, 2017)


World Jewish Congress United States

American Jewish Historical Society

Massachusetts: Portuguese American Archives


Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University

National Museum of American Jewish History

A History of the Jews in America Paperback – November 2, 1993
by Howard M. Sachar

Jewish-American History Foundation

The Jacon Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

Jewish Book Council

Jewish Population in the United States

Early American Jews

Jews in America: Portal to American Jewish History

Jews in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century America

Jewish Women’s Archive - Encyclopedia   Sharing Stories, Inspiring Change -

Nazi Germany - United States Policy and Its Impact on European Jews   Holocaust Encyclopedia



The first Jews arrived in what is now the USA with Columbus in 1492,

In 1654, 23 Jewish refugees from Recife Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (later called New York).  The USA was founded as a modern republic rooted in the Bible with a principle of religious tolerance.  In the 17th century pilgrims arriving in ‘New England’ were Puritan refugees escaping from European religious persecution who saw their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Exodus.

Thanksgiving - first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed, was seen as a day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was to be a day of fasting, introspection and prayer. With no oral tradition the Puritans tended toward a literal interpretation of the bible   In some instances this led to a stricter more fundamentalist observance than Judaism.  

The Hebrew Bible played  a central role in founding educational institutions, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia. Bible studies were required and some even adopted a Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal.  Their biblical education colored the American founders' attitude toward politics.

By 1776 there were an estimated 2,000 (mostly Sephardic) Jews living there.

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when the first synagogue (the Sephardic Touro Synagogue) opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790  He sent this letter, dated August 17, 1790:

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

His reference to the "vine and fig-tree." refers to the words of Prophet Micah, prophesying the Messianic utopia.

The idea that there was freedom for you in America as long as you were not "too Jewish," kept most Jews away. Until 1820, the Jewish population of America was only about 6,000!

This changed in the 1830s when Reform German Jews, who had scrapped traditional Judaism and were not "too Jewish," began to arrive. The great migrations of poor, oppressed Jews from Eastern Europe would follow near the turn of the century.

Colonial Jews never exceeded one tenth of one percent of the American population, yet they established patterns of Jewish communal life that persisted for generations.

First, most lived in port cities like New York which were trade biased  with others from different backgrounds and religions so that people of diverse backgrounds and faiths lived side by side.

Second, many early  leaders and institutions were Sephardic, that is coming from the Iberian peninsula, who had strong cultural institutions.

Third, they organised themselves into synagogue-communities which assumed responsibility for the religious and communal needs of all local Jews.

The American Revolution committed itself to the principles of freedom and democracy and religious freedom.

The Civil War saw Jews on both sides

First, tensions led to an upsurge of racial and religious prejudice with Jews as convenient scapegoats.

Second, Jews in the North (not in the South) had to fight to have an an army chaplain.

Third, the most sweeping anti-Jewish official order in American history--General Order No. 11, was published on December 17, 1862 which expelled all Jews from General Grant's military department. This was an irate and highly prejudiced response to wartime smuggling and speculating which applied to both Jews and non-Jews. Thanks to President Lincoln this order was revoked wthin eighteen days.

In the 1880s, the profile of Jewish immigration to the United States was profoundly changed by the pogroms directed against the Jews of Russia

In the twentieth century, when issues such as immigration restriction and bills aimed at abrogating America's commercial treaty with Russia arose, German and Eastern European Jews were united and planned strategy together. Kinship proved far stronger than petty in-group squabbles.

By 1924, nearly two million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to America.  This was later increased by those escaping the Nazis.

World War II prompted the largest displacement of human beings the world has ever seen—although today's refugee crisis is starting to approach its unprecedented scale. But even with millions of European Jews displaced from their homes, the United States had a poor track record offering asylum. Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.

The story is told in the videos

For each there are sources of information for
genealogical research.






Fewer than 15,OOO


German emigration



 Eastern European emigration






Holocaust survivors



Russian Jews
and others

Up to
5O,OOO per year

1900    1,500,000 1.97% of US Population
1942    4,975,000 3.00%    
1970    5,400,000 2.63%
2010    5,275,000 1.71%




The Americas

The Diaspora

The JEWS of the USA
from 1654 to TODAY


Jewish Migration
to the
United States

The Amazing Story
Jewish influence
on the
Founding Fathers
American Democracy.

The American Jewish Experience
Through the
Nineteenth Century: Immigration

The U.S. Government
Turned Away
of Jewish Refugees,
That They Were Nazi Spies

The Growth
of US Jews
and the Diaspora



The JEWS of the USA
from 1654 to TODAY