From the New York State Archives


Lance J. Sussman, Department of History, Binghamton University
State University of New York, Binghamton, NY

New York State is the location of both the oldest and largest Jewish community in North America. With nearly 2 million Jews, New York City alone accounts for over one-third of all Jews in the United States. At present, New York City remains the principal port of entry and site of settlement for new Jewish immigrants to the United States including Iranian, Israeli and Russian Jews. New York City is widely viewed as both the organizational and cultural "capital" of the American Jewish community with the majority of major American Jewish organizations maintaining their offices in Manhattan. Indeed, New York City has played such an outstanding role in American Jewish history that it is often difficult to separate local New York Jewish history from the larger national picture.

In 1654, the first Jews, Sephardic Refugees from Brazil, to settle in North America arrived in the Dutch port of New Amsterdam. The colony's governor, Peter Stuyvesant, sought to deport them but was overruled by the Dutch West India Company. While the tiny community of Spanish Portuguese Jews did not thrive at first, one of its leaders, Asser Levy, had real estate dealings as far north as the Albany area by 1658. Levy also successfully petitioned the colony's administration for the right to serve the New Netherland militia.

Control of New Netherland passed to the British peacefully in 1664. Renamed by the English, New York City remained ethnically, racially and religiously diverse throughout the colonial period. The first synagogue in the city, Shearith Israel ['Remant of Israel'] was organized by the end of the 17th century. The New York Kehillah ['community'] provided other colonial Jewish communities with leadership and Judaic resources and, in turn, looked to London and the Caribbean for guidance and support. By 1720, the majority of Jews in New York colony were of Ashkenazic or Central European descent although Sephardic cultural and religious customs prevailed. In 1727, naturalization became possible for the Jews of New York, and from 1740, Jews could have full citizenship. By the 1760's, Jewish families had settled in Long Island and Westchester County and had established a trading post near Newburgh, 70 miles north of the New York City on the Hudson.

Despite economic and political gains under the British, the majority of New York's Jews favored independence. When New York City was occupied by British forces, most of New York's Jews fled. Many, including the Hazzan ['Cantor'] of Shearith Israel, Gershom M. Seixas, temporarily settled in Philadelphia during the course of the fighting. The city's synagogue, however, was used by Jewish soldiers in the ranks of the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British. After the war, Seixas and others returned to New York.

Following the War of 1812, improvements in maritime technology and transportation, particularly the use of steam and the opening of the Erie Canal, combined to intensify Jewish settlement in New York from Central Europe. Ethnic and class tensions between the old Sephardic elite and the more recently arrived German Jews resulted in the break up of the New York city Kehillah in 1824 and the founding of the city's first Askenazic synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun. As immigration swelled New York's population, significant Jewish communities developed in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo between 1820 and the Civil War.

Religious divisions began to appear in New York in the 1840s with the founding of a Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel, which subsequently became the largest synagogue in the world and the spiritual home to much of New York's German Jewish elite including department store owners, investment bankers and clothing manufacturers. Isaac M. Wise, the principal architect of the Reform movement in the United States, served briefly in Albany beginning in 1846 where he established the custom of mixed seating in American synagogues before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1851.

The most important Jewish lay leader in New York in the pre-Civil War period was Mordecai Manuel Noah (d.1851), best remembered for his attempted Ararat colony near Buffalo. Beginning in the 1840s, the first secular Jewish organizations in the United States, including a men's group, B'nai Brith and a parallel women's group, the Order of True Sisters, were established in New York as well. During the 1850s, New York City's Jewish community also established a Jewish hospital and the first national Jewish defense organization, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. At the beginning of the 20th century, financier Jacob H. Schiff (d.1920) emerged as one of the outstanding Jewish philanthropists in all of American Jewish history. A member of Temple Emanu-El, he gave liberally to a wide range of Jewish causes and educational institutions.

The first East European synagogue in New York, Beth Midrash Hagadol, was organized in 1852 and included both a rabbinic family court and a group devoted to daily study of the Talmud. Intense east European Jewish immigration, however, did not begin until the 1880s eventually peaking in the decade between 1904 and 1914. The growing stream of Jewish immigration to New York inspired Emma Lazarus, a Jewess, to write a poem, "The New Colossus," (1883) which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

The arrival of over a million East European Jews in New York over a forty year period, 1880-1920, transformed New York Jewish life and led to the expansion of Jewish communal life across the state in cities of all sizes, but particularly in New York City. In 1880, approximately 60,000 Jews lived in New York City. By 1914, the Jewish population of the city exceeded 1.5 million. Hundreds of thousands of these immigrants initially settled in New York City's "Lower East Side." To meet the needs of the growing numbers of East European Jews, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was formed in New York City in 1884.

Many of the Yiddish speaking immigrants found work in the needle trades and to a lesser extent in the tobacco industry. Typically, East European Jews worked in establishments owned by German Jews. Others peddled or maintained small retail establishments, particularly in upstate communities. Trade unionism and socialism initially flourished among the immigrants. David Dubinsky, Sidney Hillman and Morris Hillquit were among the outstanding leaders of the Jewish immigrant Left. Intense, massive strikes punctuated New York's economic life, particularly in the decades prior to the outbreak of World War I.

Yiddish culture in New York was rich and diverse. The leading Yiddish theater district in the world developed along Second Avenue in Manhattan. Numerous Yiddish daily newspapers were popular including "Der Tog" and Abraham Cahan's "Forward." Sholem Aleichem, perhaps the greatest Yiddish writer of all time, died in New York in 1916. His funeral was one of the largest public Jewish events in New York Jewish history.

Relief from summer heat led to the development of the "Borscht Belt" in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties in upstate New York. A number of Jewish organizations and Americanization agencies also established summer camps for urban Jewish youth beginning with the Educational Alliance's program, Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, New York in Putnam County in 1902. Jewish summer camping remained popular among New York Jews during the course of the entire 20th century. Boxing and baseball were also very popular among Jewish men.

Religious life among New York Jews also became more diverse as East European Jews immigrated to America. Already in 1887, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded in New York City as a traditional alternative to the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College established in 1875 in Cincinnati. JTS was reorganized in 1902 with the help of New York's German Jewish elite and became the fountainhead of the emerging Conservative movement in American Judaism. Headed by Solomon Schechter, JTS spawned the United Synagogue of America in 1913. In 1915, the Etz Chaim Yeshivah founded in 1886 and the Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary founded in 1897 merged and formed the basis for the development of Yeshiva University, the vanguard of modern Jewish orthodoxy in the United States.

Zionism also played a major role in New York's various Jewish communities of the early 20th century. The Zionist Organization of America was founded in 1898, and in 1912, Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah, which has played a major role both in the history of Zionism and the development of American Jewish women's culture. During World War I, the international headquarters of the Zionist movement temporarily relocated in New York. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Zionism's principal spokesman in the United States before World War II, settled in New York in 1907 and participated broadly in the city's Jewish life founding the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1922 to train liberal rabbis.

In many ways, New York City has served as the "capital" of the larger American Jewish community throughout the 20th century. However, as early as 1859, New York City Jewish leaders organized the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the first major Jewish defense organization in the United States. The American Jewish Committee, initially representing the interests of powerful uptown German Jews, was organized in New York City in 1906. Its founders, including Louis Marshall and Oscar Straus, also helped create the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint") to help Jews displaced by fighting on the eastern front during the First World War. In 1918, the American Jewish Congress has organized as an alternative to the Committee and also focused some of its efforts on the plight of Russian and Polish Jews in Europe after the war. A 1908 attempt to reorganize the New York Jewish community as a "Kehillah" lasted for 14 years and was succeeded by the Jewish Federation in conjunction with the United Jewish Appeal.

Jews also played an increasingly significant role in the general cultural life of New York as the 20th century progressed. Many of New York's leading entertainers, writers, artists and art patrons were of Jewish origin, particularly after 1920. Outstanding contributions were made to American music by Irving Berlin and Ira and George Gershwin. The Guggenheim family supported the arts in New York. Jews also played a significant role in literature. Indeed, American intellectualism was often closely associated with the New York Jewish community.

Anti-semitism in New York began to intensify in the 1870s in the wake of Jim Crow legislation and other "constitutional" expressions of racism in the United States. Even leading New York Jewish families such as the Seligmanns found themselves excluded from posh resorts in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1908, an "official" New York City Kehillah, headed by Judah L. Magnes, was formed in response to inflated police charges that over 50% of crimes in New York City were committed by Jews. The Kehillah included a "Bureau of Social Morals," among its many agencies. In 1913, the Anti-Defamation League was organized in New York in response to the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. At a local level, particularly in New York City, Jewish-Irish relations were often tense and "blood libel" charges briefly surfaced in Massena, New York, in 1927.

Anti-semitism also contributed to the general rise in xenophobia following the end of World War I resulting in immigration restrictions which severely cut new Jewish settlement in the United States. With the rise of Hitler, however, a small but culturally significant group of German Jews began to settle in New York, particularly in the Washington Heights section of New York City. A German language newspaper, Aufbau, recorded the everyday life of this immigrant community, from its office on Broadway. Many of the new German Jewish immigrants were distinguished in the Arts and Sciences. Both Henry Kissinger and Ruth Westheimer were among the German Jewish children displaced by Nazism who founded new homes in New York.

Following World War II, two forces reshaped the New York Jewish community. Suburbanization resulted in a national redistribution of the American Jewish population. In New York, fewer than 100,000 Jews lived in all the suburbs of New York City in 1940. By 1960, the Jewish population of Westchester County was approximately 135,000 with another 270,000 Jews in Rockland County on the west side of the Hudson River and over 330,000 in Long Island's Nassau County. Upstate Jewish communities experienced similar spatial redistributions of population after World War II. Moreover, several hundred thousand New York Jews relocated throughout the country, particularly in southern California and Florida creating a vast New York Jewish diaspora in many parts of the United States.

Expansion into the suburbs resulted in widescale construction of new synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. Jewish life in the suburbs, however, accelerated the process of assimilation and by the early 1960s, demographers correctly predicted soaring rates of mix marriage. By 1990, the rate of mixed marriage exceeded 42% nationally but was lower in many of New York's more intensely Jewish neighborhoods.

A second major development in the post-War period involved the transplanting of a number of highly traditional Jewish religious communities from Europe to the United States. The largest Orthodox group, the Satmar Hasidim, settled in Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and later founded a town, Kiryas Joel, in Orange County near Monroe, NY. In 1955, Rabbi Y. Twersky founded New Square in Rockland County for his followers. A large Orthodox community also developed in nearby Monsey. Meanwhile, the Chabad Lubavitch movement rooted itself in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and several other Hasidic groups, including the Belzers helped transform Borough Park into the most populous Jewish neighborhood in the United States. Non-religious Jewish immigrants including thousands of Russian Jews and Israelis settled in Brooklyn and Queens beginning in the 1970s, a period which also saw the revival of Jewish life in Manhattan's Upper West Side.

By the end of the twentieth century, New York Jewish life was a curious mix of continuing acculturation, upstate decline and revitalization. Charitable giving to Jewish causes and full day Jewish education were both on the rise. Renewed immigration and high fertility rates among the ultra-Orthodox had largely checked demography losses, and the Jewish population in New York essentially mirrored the general demography of the state as a whole. In 1998, Charles Schumer was elected United States Senator, continuing the tradition of Jewish political activism in New York which included Herbert H. Lehman and Jacob K. Javitz, as well as Congressional representatives Lucius N. Littauer, Meyer London, Bella Abzug and, most recently, Gerald Nadel. Both Abe Beam and Ed Koch have served as Mayor of New York City and several Jewish New Yorkers have served as Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States including Benjamin N. Cardozo and Arthur Goldberg. In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, a New Yorker, was the first American Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

In every dimension, New York will most likely continue to function as the vital center of the American Jewish community during the 21st century. With one-third or more of all American Jews, an expanding education system and a strong tradition of philanthrophy, New York remains the outstanding Jewish community of the entire Jewish Diaspora. Its continued success is critical to the well being of the Jewish people for years to come.