Jewish New York: The Early Years

Challenges and triumphs since 23 Jews landed in New Amsterdam in 1654.

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The Revolutionary War

Shearith Israel was often hard-pressed to find a qualified hazzan. Those it did obtain did not stay long. How the members must have welcomed in 1768 a native son reared in the congregation, Gershom Mendes Seixas! He served for 48 years, interrupted by the Revolutionary War. In August 1776, when it was apparent that George Washington was losing the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, Seixas gathered the synagogue's scrolls and appurtenances in a wagon and joined other patriot congregants and his relatives from Newport, Rhode Island, in Connecticut.

The British remained in control of New York until the surrender in 1783. Those members of the community who had no other place to go kept the synagogue open, joined by an occasional Tory hazzan and by Jewish Hessian soldiers who opted to remain in New York when their contracts with the British army ended. The majority of New York's Jews were either shopkeepers or international traders.

Following the Revolution, the scattered leaders of Shearith Israel returned. By this time, the congregation's leaders were almost all Ashkenazic, but they were so accustomed to the Sephardic ritual that it has remained the minhag [custom]. Shearith Israel's strict control of Jewish religious life in New York was all-pervasive. Every Jew who arrived in the community was required to affiliate and to contribute as his means permitted. The congregation was also the sole social-service agency, dispensing charity and caring for the aged, the sick, and the transient.

Following the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, there was a revival of immigration of Ashkenazic Jews. The newcomers asked permission to hold their own separate services under the aegis of Shearith Israel, but when their request was denied, they broke away and in 1825 organized B'nai Jeshurun, New York's first Ashkenazic-rite congrega­tion. By mid-century, Shearith Israel's preeminence in New York's Jewish communal affairs was gradually yielding to the far larger Ger­man immigrant community.

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Abraham J. Peck

Abraham J. Peck teaches in the Department of History, University of Southern Maine.