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The adoption of the U.S. Constitution was a momentous event for Jews, not only in America, but

across the world. The document’s provisions guaranteeing religions freedom meant that the

United States became the first non-Jewish country in history to grant full political equality to

Jews. Coupled with the upheavals that rocked Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, there was

therefore much motivation for Jews to immigrate to America in the antebellum era. As a result, a

population that had numbered only 2,500 individuals on the eve of the American Revolution

grew to over 150,000 by the start of the Civil War.

       The first Jews to settle in America came aboard the ship St. Cathrien, which landed in New

Amsterdam (later New York City) in September of 1654. These “23 souls, big as well as little”

were not the first Jews in America, but because they included women and children among their

ranks they are considered the first permanent Jewish settlers, and so the starting point for

America’s Jewish community. They were not well-liked by the Dutch; the colony’s governor

described the new arrivals as “deceitful," "very repugnant," and as "hateful enemies and

blasphemers of the name of Christ.” But they stayed nonetheless.

       In the English colonies of the New World, Jewish settlers enjoyed a slightly higher level of

tolerance. Most of these settlers were Sephardic Jews who came to the New World to escape

oppressive Catholic regimes in Portugal and Spain. They lived almost exclusively in urban

centers, and achieved a measure of success as artisans and merchants. Because of their

involvement in the transatlantic trade, American Jews were also able to maintain connections

with Jews in the Caribbean and the Old World, which helped to sustain family ties, and

facilitated the acquisition of important ritual items like prayer books. For all the positives,
however, discrimination was a part of everyday life into the 1800s, as English law imposed

political restrictions and special taxes on practitioners of Judaism.

      The status of American Jews changed dramatically upon the adoption of the Constitution

and the Bill of Rights. George Washington, among others, was delighted with this development.

In response to a letter from Rabbi Moses Seixas, leader of Newport’s Congregation Kahal

Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, Washington wrote:

      The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for

      giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of

      imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is

      now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of

      people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily

      the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to

      persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should

      demean themselves as good citizens.

Not all states immediately followed the lead of the federal government. While some

legislatures—notably Virginia’s—quickly disestablished religion, other states—among them

Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina—were reluctant to grant full equality. By the

1840s, however, most state constitutions granted equal rights to all religious groups, and the few

holdouts fell into line shortly thereafter.

      At the same time state laws were being liberalized, there was a dramatic change in the

makeup of American Jewish communities. Where the first American Jews came from Spain and
Portugal, the second wave of Jewish immigration originated largely in Germany. These German

Jews were generally educated and politically liberal, and had lived through the Haskalah, or

Jewish Enlightenment. They fled to the United States to escape the political strife that

characterized mid-nineteenth century Germany.

      Judaism is a strongly community-based religion, and so Jews in America instinctively

worked to build strong communities. American Jewish communities were very different from

their European counterparts, however. In Europe, Jews were strictly segregated, and formal

membership in Jewish communities was mandated by both European law and by Jewish

community leaders. In the United States—even in the colonial era—there was no formal

segregation, and participation in Jewish communities was voluntary. This fact, coupled with the

liberal views held by German Jewish immigrants, had at least two important impacts on

American Judaism. The first was that American Jewish communities, though strong, were

generally far less organized and far less unified than those in Europe—the kehillot (synagogue-

centered communities governed by elites) in Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston,

and Savannah being notable exceptions. The second was that American Jews were typically

more casual about the practice of their religion and more secularized than European Jews. In

fact, American Judaism grew so lax in comparison to its European counterpart that the 1820s

witnessed the rise of a wave of reform. So dramatic and far-reaching were these efforts that some

historians describe this period as the “Jewish Second Great Awakening,” mirroring

developments in American Protestantism in the 1820s and 1830s. Key figures in the Jewish

Second Great Awakening included Rebecca Gratz, Henry Jones, Isaac Harby, and Isaac Leeser.

      Rebecca Gratz, who was a member of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent families, was

primarily interested in education and philanthropy. She began her career as a reformer working
with the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances

and the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. She then turned her attention to Jewish-centered

community organizations. In 1819 she founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society,

explaining that, “it is not too much to hope—too much to expect from the daughters of a noble

race that they will be foremost in the work of Charity—provided their young hearts are

impressed with its sacred duties.” In 1838, she established the first Hebrew Sunday School in the

United States. The teachers at the school were women; a first in Jewish history. In 1858, Gratz

helped create the first Jewish foster home in America.

      Henry Jones, a resident of New York and a Freemason, shared Gratz’s commitment to

community service. He also felt the need to strengthen the Jewish community, particularly by

easing immigrants’ transition to life in the United States. Jones initially tried to work within his

synagogue to achieve these goals, but divisions within the congregation made the task

impossible. So, on October 13, 1843, he founded Bundes-Brueder, or the League of Brothers.

The purpose of the new society—which drew heavily on the model of the Freemasons—was to

join American Jews together so that they might enlighten the “whole world like a lighthouse.”

Not long thereafter, Jones decided a Jewish name was more appropriate, and so Bundes-Brueder

became B’nai B’rith, or Children of the Covenant. B’nai B’rith carried out Henry Jones’ mission

in a variety of ways—promoting Jewish rights, providing information for immigrants, awarding

scholarships, assisting the victims of disasters, and lobbying on behalf of persecuted Jews

worldwide. B’nai Brith was the first Jewish secular organization in the United States, and is

today the oldest Jewish service organization in the world.

      Jewish activism was not limited only to the North; Charleston resident Isaac Harby was

also a prominent reformer. Though Harby was initially apathetic about Judaism, in the 1820s he
became concerned about American attempts to convert Jews to Protestantism and about the

increasing prominence of anti-Semitism in American politics. Harby felt the root of these

problems was that American Jews had drifted away from their community and their religion, just

as he had, and that had left them vulnerable to the predations of other religious groups. In order

to combat this trend, Harby wanted to make Judaism both more American and more accessible.

He borrowed some elements of Protestant services while maintaining what he believed to be the

core elements of Judaism. To promote his vision, Harby founded the Reformed Society of

Israelites in 1824. The Reformed Society had its own prayer books, worshiped without head

coverings, and incorporated music into church services. Though Harby’s ideas were slow to

catch on, Reform Judaism flourished in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

      Isaac Harby’s nemesis was Isaac Leeser, a German immigrant who settled in Philadelphia

and became rabbi of the city’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in 1830. A deeply Orthodox

man, Leeser vigorously resisted the reformist ideas of Harby and his colleagues. He also

translated the Hebrew Bible into English and published The Occident and American Jewish

Advocate, America’s first successful Jewish newspaper. The Occident was Leeser’s most

important legacy, for it allowed Jews in different cities to connect with one another, uniting them

in a manner previously unknown to American Jews. Leeser edited the newspaper until his death,

and by virtue of that position, his influence over American Judaism was unmatched by any of his

contemporaries. His efforts helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of Conservative

Judaism in the early twentieth century.

      In the 1850s, American Jews found themselves in a difficult position as the nation became

embroiled in controversy over the issue of slavery. On one hand, it is difficult to reconcile Jewish

tradition with an acceptance of the “peculiar institution”—the parallels between the enslavement
of Jews in Egypt, and of Africans in America are strong. On the other hand, despite their equal

legal status, Jews in the 19th century were still in a tenuous position in American society and so

were motivated to avoid entanglement in political controversies. Further, many Jews—

particularly those in the communities of Newport, Savannah, and Charleston—were devoted

Southerners. So, most American Jews tried to stay out of the fray. Those that did speak out were

bitterly divided—some supported abolition, others national unity, and a tiny minority—among

them Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York—actually tried to make the case that the Hebrew Bible

justified the practice of slavery.

      When the Civil War finally came, Jews largely divided along sectional lines, and many

Jews served loyally in both Confederate and Union armies. The most prominent Jew of the Civil

War era—and the first high-level official in any modern Western government—was Judah P.

Benjamin who served alternately as the Confederacy’s Attorney General, Secretary of War, and

Secretary of State. The Jewish population of America continued to grow dramatically in size and

influence in the decades after the Civil War, aided substantially by a new wave of immigration

from Eastern European countries. However, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also

witnessed a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout the United States, and so it would be almost

a century before a Jew would go as far in politics as Benjamin did.

Christopher Bates

Further Reading

Diner, Hasia R. A New Promised Land: A History of Jews in America. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2003.
Ezratty, Harry A. They Led the Way: The Creators of Jewish America. Baltimore: Omni Arts,


Sussman, Lance Jonathan. Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism Detroit: Wayne

State University Press, 1995.

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