Jewish Immigration to America: Three Waves

Sephardic, German, and Eastern European immigrants each contributed to the formation of American Jewry.

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This theme--the reconciliation of modern manners with Jewish tradition--would also occupy subsequent waves of Jewish immigrants as Germans and Eastern Europeans struggled to build the Reform and Conservative movements in America.  

The Germans

German Jews began to come to America in significant numbers in the 1840s. Jews left Germany because of persecution, restrictive laws, economic hardship, and the failure of movements--widely supported by German Jews --advocating revolution and reform there. They looked to America as an antidote to these ills--a place of economic and social opportunity.

Some 250,000 German-speaking Jews came to America by the outbreak of World War I. This sizeable immigrant community expanded American Jewish geography by establishing themselves in smaller cities and towns in the Midwest, West, and the South. German Jewish immigrants often started out as peddlers and settled in one of the towns on their route, starting a small store there. This dispersion helped to establish American Judaism as a national faith.

If German Jews had one city of their own invention, it was Cincinnati. German immigrants flocked to this area, which was considered a gateway to trade in the Midwest and West. Cincinnati became the seat of American Reform Judaism, home to the movement's first American leader, Issac Mayer Wise (an immigrant from Bohemia), and its newspaper and seminary. 

In addition to promoting Reform Judaism in America, German Jewish immigrants created institutions as significant and longstanding as B'nai B'rith, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Eastern Europeans

Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers after 1880. Pushed out of Europe by overpopulation, oppressive legislation and poverty, they were pulled toward America by the prospect of financial and social advancement. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America. Once again, the character of American Jewry was transformed, as the Eastern Europeans became the majority.

The immigrants tended to settle in the poorer neighborhoods of major cities. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Chicago, for example, all featured Jewish sections by the turn of the 20th century. Living conditions in these neighborhoods were often cramped and squalid. The immigrants found work in factories, especially in the garment industry, but also in cigar manufacturing, food production, and construction. Jewish workers supported the labor movement's struggle for better working conditions. Yiddish culture, in the form of drama, journalism, and prose, flourished in American Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, and the plight of the immigrant worker was a common cultural theme.

The Eastern European Jews also brought with them certain ideological principles that would influence American Jewry. Many of the workers supported socialism or communism as a means of securing economic and social equality. In this manner, the Eastern Europeans established a strong link between American Jews and liberal politics.

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.