Monday, September 15, 2008

Jewish Knowledge (3)

Topic: Jewish Tid-Bits Manhattan #1

The beginnings of the first Jewish congregation in North America, Congregation Shearith Israel, go back to shortly after the settlement of the first Jewish pilgrims in 1654, when the Jews, forbidden to hold public religious services, congregated in their homes. The first Jewish cemetery, no longer existent, was established in 1656. The congregation was Sephardic, and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were in the majority for about 40 years. As early as 1695, however, the Jewish community was already about half Sephardic, half Ashkenazic, contrary to the popular belief that New York Jewry in colonial times was decidedly Sephardic. This belief may have arisen from the fact that the Sephardic ritual was maintained in the synagogue.

In 1682, the second Jewish cemetery in New York was purchased. Known as the Chatham Square Cemetery, it is the second oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the U.S. today, antedated only by the cemetery in New Port, R.I.

One of the first Jews to serve in the military in British North America was Joseph Isacks, who took part in King William's War (1689-1697). Isacks enlisted in the militia before 1690. Whether he marched north with the invaders or stayed to guard the town is not known. By trade, Isacks was a butcher, but unlike Asser Levy, the butcher of earlier years, he was not very successful.

On December 19, 1728, several leaders of the congregation acquired a small piece of land on Mill Street, and in 1730 the first synagogue building in North America was dedicated. By 1729, Ashkenazic Jews constituted a majority of the congregants, and the presidency passed into the hands of a "German" Jew, Jacob Franks, a prominent merchant and a member of the Jewish family which was most active in army contracting during colonial days.

Hayman Levy, a merchant who sold army good in a store on Bayard Street during the French and Indian War, commissioned privateers, and traded in furs with the Indians, was elected president of the congregation in September 1756, but refused to accept office, probably becuse of his business responsibilities. In 1767, he was acting president, however, and after the Revolution was president when the religious community started life anew.

In 1768, the 22 year old Gershom Mendes Seixas was elected Hazzan of the congregation to succeed Joseph Jessurun Pinto. Seixas thus became the first native-born Jewish minister in America. (28)

Sources Utilized to Document Information


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