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.
The Society’s founders decided that their first and most important duty was to write a one-or two-volume history of early Jewish settlements in the New World. They commissioned a scholarly study to determine whether Christopher Columbus was a secret Jew professing his Catholicism to survive the Inquisition. While the investigation into Columbus’s origins proved inconclusive, it appears that three of his crew members were born Jewish and may have secretly resumed the practice of their faith once in the New World. The Society conducted similar studies of Jewish participation in the American Revolution, Jews who fought on both sides of the Civil War, and of Jewish contributions to the tradition of religious toleration in the Early National period.
Today, the Society’s educational work continues. In 1992, to mark its centennial, the Society published a five-volume, multi-author history, The Jewish People in America. In 1997, it produced a two-volume reference work, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia and a thirteen-volume compendium of the best essays published in the field. In 1999, it produced The American Jewish Desk Reference. The Society’s founders may have thought that they could retire after publishing two volumes, but American Jewish history, like the Society itself, continues to thrive and evolve.
Today, the descendants of the Sephardic “grandees” and the German Jews of “Our Crowd” have “intermarried” with the grandchildren of Yiddish-speaking Russian and Polish immigrant Jews. Like time itself, the American Jewish Historical Society has helped forge a single American Jewish people.
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.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.