Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
During the 1890s, a number of Jewish organizations were established for communal defense. One of the most enduring has been the American Jewish Historical Society. A core group of leading Jews, most of German origins, founded the Society. This group included Oscar Straus, the first Jew appointed to the Cabinet; Cyrus Adler, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University; Henrietta Szold, who went on to found Hadassah; David de Sola Pool, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York; and Professor Charles Gross of Harvard University.
Although the American Jewish Historical Society was then and remains today primarily a research institution, the founders of the Society saw a role for it in the fight against bigotry. According to Naphtali Taylor Phillips, a descendant of a New York Jewish family dating to the 1660s, “The Society found its origin by reason of the severe criticism of and protest against … mass immigration in general and the Jewish in particular.” Philips feared that this criticism might be used to “confirm the generally age-old anti-Semitic theory that the Jews, having had nothing to do with the establishment of America or American independence, were simply parasites who would such the blood of the country.”
Professor Gross of Harvard argued that “the Jews of this country have been ready to offer up life and fortune for this country, that they have been patriots in time of war and philanthropists in time of peace, that they will be patriots and philanthropists in the future as they have been in the past … If we can at once make that plain through the research of the Society it seems to me we will accomplish a great deal to elevate the position of the Jews in America.”
The Society’s earliest journal articles document many of the contributions Jews made to the evolution of American institutions at least since 1654, when a boatload of Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil, landed in New Amsterdam (now New York). Historians believe that from the early 1500s at least some Jews lived in the Portuguese colonies as Catholics, while secretly continuing to practice their Judaism. If that is correct, Jews have been American residents at least a century longer than the Pilgrims.
(Image to the left: American Jewish Historical Society original ‘call to meeting’, May 25, 1892. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)
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