Jewish American Life, 1700 to 1914
In 1654, the first group of Jews arrived in colonial America.
They were 23 Sephardic refugees who were fleeing Brazil, which had been recently captured by the Portuguese. Sometimes dubbed the "Jewish Pilgrim Fathers," these Sephardic Jews docked in New Amsterdam (later New York), seeking permission to reside among the locals, and hoping to conduct trade.
The Christian colonials in America were not all pleased to welcome these Jews. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam, tried to have the Jews expelled from the city. He was unsuccessful at that, but still Jews were limited in how they could participate in local trade. However, as the years went on and the Jews in America became more influential, they were accorded increasingly more rights.
Up until the American Revolution, adventurous Jewish merchants--both Sephardic and Ashkenazic--established homes in New Amsterdam and other American colonial ports, including Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah.
However, the earliest American Jewish communities all followed Sephardic customs; the rational and refined aesthetic of Sephardic practices appealed to Jewish colonials, Sephardic and Ashkenazic alike. The first American synagogue, Shearith Israel in New York, was completed in 1730. Until the early 19th century, this Sephardic synagogue made it mandatory for every Jew who arrived in the city to affiliate with and contribute to it.
At the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the loyalties of Jewish colonials were divided, with a sizeable majority favoring the Patriot vision of an independent America. About 100 Jews fought in the war on both sides, and many more were driven from their homes because of British attacks.
After American independence was declared in 1776, and the Constitution ratified in 1788, Jews were afforded what the historian of American Judaism Jonathan Sarna calls "an unprecedented degree of equal footing." In a famous 1790 letter to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, George Washington reassured the Jewish community of its religious liberty, and even hinted that America might prove something of a Promised Land for Jews.
Many Jews from abroad arrived to make good on this promise. Between 1815 and the eve of the Civil War, two million German-speaking Europeans migrated to the United States, including thousands of Jews. With this second wave of immigration, the character of American Jewish practice shifted from Sephardic to Ashkenazic tradition.