New York City Jews

New York City has the oldest and largest Jewish community in North America. More than one third of all the Jews in the United States live in New York. Almost 2 million Jews live in New York City, which is the principal port of entry and site of settlement for new Jewish immigrants to the United States.

The first Jews, a group of 24 refugees fleeing persecution in Brazil, came to New York in 1654, when it was still a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, did not want them there. But the Dutch West Indian Company was heavily dependent on Jewish investments, and blocked Stuyvesant’s efforts. One of the leaders of this Jewish colony, Asser Levy, became financially successful, with real estate dealings as far north as what is now Albany by 1658. Levy also gained the Jews of his colony the right to serve in the militia of New Netherland.

In 1664, the British gained control of New Netherland and renamed it New York. New Amsterdam, now called New York City, remained religiously, ethnically and racially diverse as a British colony. Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in New York City, was organized by the end of the 17th century. By 1720, the majority of Jews in the New York colony were of Central European descent although Sephardic cultural and religious customs prevailed. In 1740, Jews were given the right to be full citizens.

During the 1850s, New York City’s Jewish community established a Jewish hospital and the first national Jewish defense organization, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. The first East European synagogue in New York, Beth Midrash Hagadol, was organized in 1852. In 1868, the German Jews of New York built a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel, on the Upper East Side. Today it is the largest Jewish House of Worship in the world.

A huge number of Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York between 1880 and 1914. These immigrants inspired Emma Lazarus, who was also Jewish to write the poem, “The New Colossus”, which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. By 1880, New York, had a Jewish population of 180,000, that would soon grow to 1.8 million. Some Jews were able to become very wealthy in New York City, including Charles Bloomingdale, founder of Bloomingdale’s department store, Marcus Goldman, founder of Goldman, Sachs & Co., and Henry, Emanual and Mayer Lehman, founder of Lehman brothers. But not all Jews who came to New York City were so fortunate.

In the beginning of the 1900s, many poor Jews came from Eastern Europe to find themselves packed in Lower East Side tenement houses. Many of the Jewish immigrants found work in the garment industry. Others maintained small retail establishments. Some of them were very involved in socialism and trade unionism.

Jews in New York City had a very rich culture. The leading Yiddish theater district in the world developed along Second Avenue in Manhattan. Numerous Yiddish daily newspapers were popular including “Der Tog” and Abraham Cahan’s “Forward.” Sholem Aleichem, who some say was the greatest Yiddish writer of all time, was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s. He is best known for his collection of stories about Tevye the Dairyman, which later became the basis for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Until the early 20th century, most of New York’s Jewish population lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the neighborhood still retains its traditional character, even though most New Yorkers of Jewish background now live elsewhere. In Brooklyn, the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Williamsburg are still home to large numbers of Orthodox Jews, and an influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union during the ’80s added to their numbers.

Today New York’s Jews make up about 12% of New York City’s total population. They are the city’s second-largest ethnic voting bloc, behind blacks, but are the most effective ethnic group politically because they vote in higher numbers.