Bill Federer recounts history of chosen peoples’ contributions to America
n 1492, three major events happened in Spain.
The monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last of the Muslims out, liberating Spain from 700 years of occupation. They then sent Columbus to find a sea route to India and China as Muslims in the east had cut off the land routes. Then Spain forced Sephardic Jews to flee.
Some Jews went to the Ottoman Empire, some went to Portugal, and later some went to the Netherlands, which was Europe’s center of religious toleration. Jews migrated to Holland’s largest city of Amsterdam, which in the 1600s became the wealthiest city in the world. From 1575 on, Holland’s University of Leiden was a center of the study of Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, with a Jewish rabbi as a professor.
The Pilgrims lived in Leiden before sailing to Massachusetts, and identified themselves with the ancient Hebrew republic. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews back into England, ending the banishment enacted by Edward I in 1290. In New England, Puritans and Congregationalists had Hebrew taught in Harvard and Yale. Yale President Ezra Styles identified the country as “American Israel.”
With the Dutch merchants, many Jews sailed settlements around the world, including to South America, settling in the city of Recife. In Recife, Jews built the first synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue.
When Spain and Portugal attacked Recife, the Jews fled again. Twenty-three Jews sailed to Port Royal, Jamaica, then, on the French ship Sainte Catherine, they arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1654, becoming the first Jews in North America.
Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant attempted to expel them, but they were allowed to stay, as the Dutch West India Company in Holland considered Spain and Portugal its main enemies, not Jews or other dissenters.
The Dutch were in a global contest with Spain and Portugal over possessions in Indonesia, India, Africa and South America, and so they wanted to quickly populate the colony of New Netherlands for its defense and profitability.
In 1663, the Dutch West India Company officially established the Dutch Reformed faith, but instructed Peter Stuyvesant to be lenient regarding Quakers “and other sectarians”: “Immigration … must be favored at so tender a stage of the country’s existence, you may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.”
Jews in New Amsterdam were not allowed to worship outside their homes or join the city’s militia. When British forces took control of New Amsterdam in 1664, they renamed it New York and granted Jews more freedom. In 1730, Jewish citizens in New York bought land and built the small “Mill Street Synagogue,” the first Jewish house of worship in North America.
During the colonial era, America’s population grew to 3 million, with a Jewish population of around 2,000 in seven Sephardic congregations:
- Shearith Israel, New York City, begun 1655
- Yeshuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island, begun 1658
- Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, begun 1733
- Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, begun 1740
- Shaarai Shomayim, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, begun 1747
- Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina, begun 1749
- Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalom, Richmond, Virginia, begun 1789
From the third century on, the teaching of Rabbi Samuel of Nehardea in Babylonia, that “the law of the land is the law,” resulted in Jews refraining from trying to change their political situation.
The American Revolutionary War was the first time since being exiled from Jerusalem that Jews fought alongside Christian neighbors as equals in the fight for freedom. Jewish merchants, such as Aaron Lopez of Newport and Isaac Moses of Philadelphia, sailed their ships past British blockades to provide clothing, guns, powder and food to the needy Revolutionary soldiers. Some merchants lost everything.
An estimated 160 Jews fought in the Continental American Army during the Revolutionary War, such as:
Lieut. Solomon Bush and Francis Salvador of South Carolina, the first Jewish state legislator, who was killed in a Revolutionary War battle;
Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah was deputy commissary general for American troops, 1778;
Abigail Minis supplied provisions to American soldiers in 1779;
and Reuben Etting of Baltimore fought and was appointed U.S. Marshall for Maryland by Jefferson, 1801.
George Washington’s Jewish physician, Dr. Philip Moses Russell, suffered with him at Valley Forge.
President Calvin Coolidge recounted, May 3, 1925:
“Haym Solomon, Polish Jew financier of the Revolution. Born in Poland, he was made prisoner by the British forces in New York, and when he escaped set up in business in Philadelphia.
He negotiated for Robert Morris all the loans raised in France and Holland, pledged his personal faith and fortune for enormous amounts, and personally advanced large sums to such men as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Baron Steuben, General St. Clair, and many other patriot leaders who testified that without his aid they could not have carried on in the cause.”
In 1975, a U.S. postage stamp honored Haym Solomon, with printing on the back:
“Financial hero-businessman and broker Haym Solomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later saved the new nation from collapse.”
George Washington sent a letters to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Savannah, Georgia, stating:
“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven.”
Ashkenazic Jews were few in America until a persecution in Bavaria in the 1830s resulted in many thousands immigrating. President Martin Van Buren sent a letter to the Muslim Ottoman Turks requesting that they stop the killing of Jews in Syria, “on behalf of an oppressed and persecuted race, among whose kindred are found some of the most worthy and patriotic of American citizens.”
David Yulee, “Father of Florida Railroads,” was the first Jew elected to the U.S Senate in 1845. He was joined in 1853 by Senator Judah P. Benjamin from Louisiana.
Governor David Emanuel of Georgia was the first Jewish governor of any U.S. state. In 1818, Solomon Jacobs was the ‘acting’ Mayor of Richmond, Virginia. In 1832, Pittsburgh’s seventh mayor was Samuel Pettigrew, the first full-time Jewish mayor in America.
Uriah P. Levy was the first Jewish Commodore in the U.S. Navy, fighting in the War of 1812 and commanding the Mediterranean squadron.
He was responsible for ending the practice of flogging in the Navy. A chapel at Annapolis and a WWII destroyer were named after him.
When Jefferson’s Monticello home was decaying, Levy bought it in 1836, repaired it and opened it to the public. He commissioned the statute of Jefferson which is in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.
Samuel Mayer Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger, wrote of the United States, Dec. 28, 1860:
“This Republic was the first to recognize our claims to absolute equality, with men of whatever religious denomination. Here we can sit each under his vine and fig tree, with none to make him afraid.”
In 1862, the London Jewish Chronicle reported:
“We now have a few words of the Jews of the United States in general. … The Constitution having established perfect religious liberty, Jews were free in America. … They … in a comparatively short time, prospered and throve there in a degree unexampled in Europe.”
At the time of the Civil War, the population of the United States was 31 million, including around 150,000 Jews. An estimated 7,000 Jews fought for the Union and 3,000 fought for the Confederacy, with around 600 Jewish soldiers dying in battle.
Jewish Union Generals were: Leopold Blumenberg; Frederick Knefler; Edward S. Salomon; and Frederick C. Salomon.
Jewish Confederate officers included: Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War; Colonel Abraham Charles Myers, Quartermaster General; and Dr. David Camden DeLeon, Surgeon General; surgeon Dr. Simon Baruch served on General Robert E. Lee’s personal staff.
Major Raphael J. Moses was Commissary Officer of Georgia, and after the war began Georgia’s peach industry. Whereas the first Catholic U.S. Army chaplain was appointed during the Mexican-American War, the first Jewish chaplain was appointed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Rev. Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
On March 1, 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated and a pogrom began against Jews, leading to over 2 million fleeing to America. By 1916, the United States population was 100 million, of which 3 million were Jewish.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson wrote:
“Whereas in countries engaged in war there are 9 million Jews, the majority of whom are destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; driven from their homes without warning … causing starvation, disease and untold suffering. … The people of the U.S. have learned with sorrow of this terrible plight. … I proclaim Jan. 27, 1916, a day to make contributions for the aid of the stricken Jewish people to the American Red Cross.”
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