250 Years in America


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The San Francisco Sunday Call newspaper,  December 10, 1905.


Member Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

It is now 250 years since the first Hebrew, whose name has been preserved, arrived on American soil. He was Jacob Bar Simson. He came from Holland on the Pear Tree on July 8, 1654, followed in the same year by a band of twenty-three refugees, probably from Brazil, on the St. Catarina.

The first arrivals in New York met an unfriendly reception, utterly at variance with the Dutch character. They were a small band of refugees, probably from Brazil, and expected to find in New Amsterdam a haven of rest after their weary pilgrimage. They were regarded, however, with little sympathy.

The settlement of the Hebrews on the American continent antedates by fully a century the settlement of Jamestown and the coming of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. The world's history is linked together far closer than a superficial observer imagines.

It is known beyond doubt that there were at least five Hebrews with Columbus--the interpreter, the doctor and the surgeon of the fleet, besides two sailors.

Emilio Castelar, the statesman of modern Spain and her President in 1873 during the hundred days of her republican regime, as well as the historian Kayserling, certifies that the closing chapter of the professors of Judaism on the Iberian Peninsula was the beginning of their history upon the American continent.

Among the earliest and certainly by far the most advanced and intelligent of the colonists who came to the new world were fugitives from the Inquisition, who were chiefly Hebrews.

It is an undoubted fact that the Hebrews were among the first white settlers in large numbers on the American continent. Their first coming within the limits of the United States was only thirty-four years after the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers on the shores of New England.

They participated in the war of the revolution and gave in proportion to their numbers more than their quota of officers, men and money to the patriots' cause. No less than 7,000 Hebrews, officers and men, participated in the Civil War.


The earliest Hebrew community in the United States after that in New York was that at Newport, R. I., which traces its beginnings to emigrants from New Amsterdam in 1655, due probably to the chilling atmosphere of the Dutch town. More families followed, attracted by the liberal principles adopted by Roger Williams as the basis of his commonwealth. About a century later important accessions were made of settlers from Spain, Portugal and the West Indies. In 1763 a synagogue was dedicated, there being then about sixty-five families, including merchants of high standing, among others Aaron Lopez, a rich ship owner, and Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, who introduced the manufacture of spermacetti into America. The revolution dispersed the Hebrew community, which settled in other sections, the city losing gradually its commercial prestige.

Judah Touro.

Judah Touro
Courtesy of the
"American Hebrew."


The Touro family bequeathed a sum sufficient to maintain the old cemetery and synagogue, the latter a good illustration of old colonial architecture, and after long years of silence it is again occupied for worship. Judah Touro is one of the truly famous names in American Hebrew history.

In Pennsylvania the only Hebrew settlers were of German stock, Lancaster and Easton being the oldest communities, Joseph Simon, Myer Hart and Aaron Levy being pioneers. In Philadelphia records are kept of two early settlers, Jonas Aaron (1704) and Arnold Bamberger (1726). The first assembly for public worship dates from 1747. The Rev. G. M. Seixas, favorably known for his patriotism, with a number of Hebrews who escaped British rule in New York, established the first Portuguese synagogue during the Revolution.


Gershon Mendez Seixas.


The Philadelphia community rapidly increased in numbers and influence. Here was established the first Sunday-school (1838), in which Rebecca Gratz, whom Washington Irving suggested a model for Rebecca in "Ivanhoe," was the leading spirit, and the first short-lived Hebrew college (1867), due greatly to the initiative of Isaac Leeser, preacher, editor, publisher, translator and indefatigable worker.

In later years Sabato Morais was the founder of the New York Seminary, and Marcus Yestrow was the first to prepare an English dictionary of the Talmud. Philadelphia, too, was to be the seat of an active publication society, and through two of its younger rabbis, Berkowitz and Krauskopf, applied the Chautauqua idea to education and organized a farm school for teaching agriculture to youth.

Two members of the Philadelphia community merit mention, among others, for their patriotic attitude during the Revolution--Michael Gratz and Haym Solomon. The latter, like Isaac Moses of New York, powerfully aided Robert Morris. The Solomon heirs have never been repaid the advances made to the provisional government.


Rev. Isaac Leeser.



Hebrews came to Georgia in the same year with Oglethorpe, and six were granted by him full rights as original settlers (December 21, 1733). Among the colonists Abraham de Lyon introduced grape culture. In the Revolution the Hebrews of Savannah were stanch patriots, and on its capture by the British in 1778 Mordecai Sheftall and his son, both officers in the Colonial army, were confined in the prison ship. Not less notable were the Hebrews of Charleston, a close study of whose history has just been made by Dr. Elzas of that city. Their oldest congregation dates from 1750. The community increased so rapidly that a new synagogue was erected in 1794, their strength being augmented after the Revolution by the settlement there of many New York Hebrews. Francis Salvador was a friend of the patriotic leaders. In later decades the community was to form one of the largest and most cultured in the land, and the Hart, De Leon, Moisse, Lopez, Lazarus and Cohen families gave dignity and distinction to the Charleston Hebrews. Here, too, was the home of Penina Morse (1797-1880) the poet, whose hymns have long been changed in the Sunday-schools.

In Maryland, where the "Jew doctor," Jacob Lumbrozo, was tried in 1658 for blasphemy, it was many years before full religious liberty was granted, and not until 1824 that two Hebrew officeholders were elected without being obliged finally to declare their belief in the Christian religion. To-day they are prominent in art, law, science, and the university world, as well as in commerce.

In Louisiana the Hebrews have prospered since Judah Touro saw service at the battle of New Orleans, and have sent their representatives to the State Legislature and National Congress, as have other States of the South. among those were Philip Phillips, Judah P. Benjamin, Benjamin F. Jonas, L. C. Levin, Isidor Rayner and David S. Kaufman.

Hebrews took an active part in the development of Texas. Samuel Israel, Abraham C. Labatt, Jacob de Cordova and Henry Castro were among the pioneers.

Virginia formed its first congregation about 1791, although some immigrants settled within the limits of the State a century earlier.

In the emigration that led to the upbuilding of cities in the Ohio Valley, Hebrews were participants. In Ohio the first Hebrew settler was Joseph Jonas, who arrived in Cincinnati March 8, 1817. What a change in ninety years in that city, whose Hebrew community ranks among the most public spirited and progressive in the country! Here is the Hebrew Union College, where graduates fill many important Jewish pulpits; and here, too, labored for many decades Drs. I. M. Wise and Max Lilienthal.

The Hebrews of Chicago date their beginnings from 1841-3. To-day the community closely competes with New York in its curious contrast between the old-fashioned and the new-fashioned elements.

Hebrews were among the gold-seekers in California in 1849, and have done more than their share in the development of the Northwest, its mines and seas and railways, with men like Sutro, Michael Reese, Sloss, Gerstle, Friedlander, Hellman, Rosenfeld, the members of the Alaska Commercial and the North American Commercial companies. Over one hundred Hebrews were in the First California Volunteers, that saw service in the Philippines, and Jacob Voorsanger, rabbi, professor and editor, of San Francisco was one of the founders of the California Red Cross Society.

The American Hebrew is a factor in American life, and not an unimportant one. Numerically there are a million and a half Hebrews in the United States--about 2 per cent of the total population, yet it is a question whether any other single element in the population has accomplished so much toward the development of the wealth and power of the States as this one during the 250 years since the Hebrews first settled in the land.

There are some 750,000 Hebrews in New York now, as many as in all the rest of the United States. These constitute 20 per cent of the total population of this Western metropolis. The contribution of the Hebrew to the building of the commercial and financial supremacy of New York has been more than proportionate to his numbers, for the Hebrew has had generations of training in commerce and finance which well prepares him for city life in the metropolitan business circles.

A study of the pursuits followed by the Hebrew is interesting, for it is a mistake to think that the Hebrew is either a middleman or a small dealer. There is scarcely any trade or profession in which he will not be found, and while he is not afraid of manual labor, the tendency is to combine this with intellectual effort. Hebrews are producers, not merely in the narrow sense that the farmer is a producer by sowing the seed and reaping then or twenty fold, but with raw material and the application of labor they produce the finished article. They are producers, too, in another sense, making new markets for productions of all kinds, and joining the ends of the earth by a community of interests.

In art America has given to the world several first-class artists like Ezekiel, the sculptor, and Mosler, the painter, besides many lesser lights, illustrators and caricaturists.

The Hebrew has always been attracted to journalism, and his power of organization, study of details and intellectual readiness have made him successful in this field. One is the inventor of the so-called yellow journalism; another is the manager of "All the news that's fit to print," and between these are journalists large and small, managers, editors and hundreds of bright reporters.

The contribution of the Hebrew mind to permanent American literature are not very numerous. There have been tuneful poets, like Emma Lazarus and Penina Moise; a few novelists and essayists. One noteworthy production of American Hebrew scholarship is the Jewish encyclopedia, just completed.

It is the general impression that the Hebrew is first and always a business man, and it is true that for many centuries the denial of his right to enter any profession save that of medicine drove him to commercial pursuits, but as soon as the shackles were removed, he hastened into the learned professions. That this is so is proved by the fact that in almost every Hebrew family there is at least one lawyer or physician.

It is no exaggeration to estimate the percentage of Hebrew lawyers as at least 50 per cent and that of physicians as not less than 45 per cent. many in each of these professions have attained eminence, for there have been and are several Judges on the bench of the courts and some of the leading medical authorities are of Hebrew stock.

Politically, especially in new York, the Hebrew element is one to be reckoned with. The alignment is, however, never made along religious lines. The Hebrews belong to all parties, and as a rule cast an intelligent vote. It has been proved that in campaigns where questions of morality or political purity are issues, a large vote for the better side comes from the notably Hebrew districts. The Hebrews have not, however, made it a point of having full representation, though many have served in offices from Alderman to United States Senator. One of the bet types of statesmen, serving his country at personal sacrifice, is that of Oscar S. Straus, Minister (under Democratic and Republican regime alike) to Turkey, and active still in the interest of peace between nations and between employers and employees.

It is not generally known that Hebrews took an active part in the agitation which led finally to the Declaration of Independence, the documentary proof of which lies in the non-importation resolution of 1765, a copy of which is preserved in Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia, and bears distinctive Hebrew names. They are Samson Levy, Benjamin Levy, Joseph Jacobs, Hyman Levy Jr., David Franks, Mathias Bush, Michael Gratz, Barnard Gratz and Moses Mordecai.

A large number of Hebrews fought in the revolutionary war, and Haym Solomon of Philadelphia loaned the revolutionists the enormous sum of $600,000, not a cent of which has ever been repaid to him or his heirs. An entire volume showing how large the contribution of he Hebrews has been to the armies of the United States has been published by Simon Wolf, and there it is notably proven that the Hebrew has been always ready to volunteer for the service of his country in even greater proportion than might have been required. More than 4,000 Hebrews were in the army during the late war with Spain, and even among the "Rough Riders" there were seven.

As was only natural, the Hebrews have taken part in financial business to a large degree, for hey had been the world's first financiers, and their international connections have given them special facilities for the carrying on of exchange between nations. One of the founders of the Stock Exchange was a Hebrew.

The wide variety of Hebrew pursuits is little appreciated, yet it is difficult to find any trade, profession or business in which they do not play some part. They have rolling mills and steel furnaces, woolen mills and saw mills; the inventor of commercial yeast was a Hebrew. The Hebrews carry on a large part of the tobacco business, both in the leaf and in manufacturing. There are Hebrew electrical and civil engineers, and there are Hebrew graduates of Annapolis and of West Point.

In the building trades more and more Hebrew carpenters, masons and glaziers are being employed, especially in New York City, where the Hebrews are taking so prominent a part in contracting and building. They are spreading out also into the country, taking up the deserted farms of New England, cultivating the soil of New Jersey and establishing farms even in the Dakotas. It is estimated that the Hebrew farm population is between 10,000 and 15,000.

As teachers the Hebrews have also been successful, probably by heredity, for this has been a favorite profession for many centuries. In the development of the intellectual life of the country the Hebrew is already doing his share, but that work will be greatly increased with the added force of the thousands of ambitious young men who have lately arrived there. In the business world, he will continue to progress, extending his activities to many industries as he finds room for his ingenuity and industry.

From the sociological side the American Hebrew has had many problems to solve. The three separate and distinct tides and types of immigration have made it possible to dispose of these problems gradually and in turn. Those first settling in the United States were chiefly of Portuguese stock, and equipped as they were with culture and means they took part in the affairs of the colonies on a par with other settlers, reserving only the right to worship God when and how they pleased.

When the great German influx began in 1848 and thereabout, different problems arose. The Americanized Hebrews who had been in the country for several generations were not overpleased to see the uncultured, poverty-stricken men pour into the States, and, while they helped them when in distress, they were refused admittance into their family circles. But the Germans were independent and formed their own religious and social organizations. They went further and began the great reform religious movement of which only mutterings had been heard before. They founded benevolent orders, which established asylums, homes and hospitals in many of the large cities. Each congregation had its charity branch, generally in the hands of the women, and the foundations of the philanthropic institutions were broadly laid.

Clubs were formed after the German model, where men and women assembled for social pleasures, and in the course of time the German element became dominant and more conspicuous than the Portuguese congregations by mere force of numbers.

Twenty-five years ago the poor were limited in numbers and well cared for. The criminal was so exceptional as to be almost negligible. Then came the persecutions in Russia and Roumania, and hundreds of thousands of more or less helpless men were driven to America.

Baron de Hirsch, recognizing the immediate need, established the Hirsch trust, which has taken upon itself the strengthening of the weak links in the philanthropic chain and the supplying of missing links. By the aid of the trustees of this fund, the great Educational Alliance building was erected in the tenement district of New York, and as the Jewish People's Palace it has reached thousands and hundreds of thousands who might otherwise have gone astray. Its purpose has been, in a word, to transform the immigrant Hebrew of all ages and classes into the intelligent and patriotic American citizen. The hundred thousand dollars that is expended by the alliance every year is better spent than nine-tenths of the so-called charity given in alms. It is truly preventive work, preventing crime, preventing ignorance and suffering, preventing degradation. The vast building of the alliance is crowded at all hours until late at night with the uplifting work, which an elastic system has proved most necessary. There are classes to teach English to young and old; there are clubs of all kinds stimulating thought and bringing culture; there are classes in cooking, in needlework, in millinery, in art and music, as well as in civics and history. It is a humming hive of intellectualizing and moralizing activity from week end to week end.

The example set by the alliance has been followed in every large city in the United States, until now this uplifting machinery is at work all over the country.

The material welfare of the immigrants has been looked after no less carefully, for it was most necessary. Approved methods of dispensing monetary aid have been adopted by uniting the societies of each community and forming an intimate connection between the charities of the different cities. This has prevented abuses such as pauperizing and reduplication, and has introduced a system into the work and eliminated almost altogether the possibility of imposition.

Helping the immigrants to help themselves has been he rule followed from the beginning. A policy of distributing the laborers is followed constantly in the attempt to relieve the great Eastern cities of congestion. Not only are there employment bureaus, but there are labor distribution offices, which send thousands of workmen to those points where employment is waiting for them.

Agricultural colonies have been founded in New Jersey, and many farmers have been established on the deserted farms of New England and in the Far West. The agencies have learned how to select those adapted to farm life, and the distribution of these goes on apace. In order to train the young for farm life the National Farm School has been founded near Philadelphia by Dr. Joseph Krauskopf and its graduates are sent annually to the State agricultural stations and in time will act as leaders of farm colonies.

The life of the working girl is cared for in such institutions as the Baroness de Hirsch Working Girls' Home, where the unprotected working girl finds not only a home, but also many opportunities for elevating herself and improving her condition.

It was no small task for the three hundred thousand American Hebrews to care for and lead four times their own number within the last twenty-five years, yet that it precisely what they have had to do. The responsiveness of their charges has aided materially in the work. The poor have helped one another greatly. They have done so even to the extent of founding inns for temporary aid, loan societies and hospitals.



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