Jewish Immigration to America: Three Waves

Sephardic, German, and Eastern European immigrants each contributed to the formation of American Jewry.

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Today, America's Jewish community is largely Ashkenazic, meaning it is made up of Jews who trace their ancestry to Germany and Eastern Europe. However, the first Jews to arrive in what would become the United States were Sephardic--tracing their ancestry to Spain and Portugal. The following article looks at the three major waves of Sephardic and Ashkenazic immigration to America.

Historians have traditionally divided American Jewish immigration into three periods: Sephardic, German, and Eastern European. While the case can be made that during each period, immigrants were not solely of any one origin (Some Germans came during the "Sephardic" period and some Eastern Europeans arrived during the "German" era, for example), the fact remains that the dominant immigrant group influenced the character of the American Jewish community.

The Sephardim

The first group of Sephardic settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil. For several decades afterward, adventurous Sephardic and Ashkenazic merchants established homes in American colonial ports, including Newport, R.I., New Amsterdam (later New York), Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

 

jewish poster

Poster from World War I

While the Ashkenazim outnumbered the Sephardim by 1730, the character of the American Jewish community remained Sephardic through the American Revolution. Colonial American synagogues adhered to Sephardic ritual customs and administered all aspects of Jewish religious life. The synagogue did not, however, attempt to govern the economic activities of its (mostly mercantile) members. This was a departure from the Old World, where synagogues in places like Amsterdam, London, and Recife, taxed commercial transactions, regulated Jewish publications, and punished members for lapses in individual or commercial morality. In this manner, colonial synagogues set a precedent of compartmentalization--a division between Jewish and worldly domains--in American Jewish life.

Colonial American Sephardic synagogues also sought to combine modern notions of aesthetics with traditional Judaism, creating congregations that were rational and refined. Synagogues established rules of order so that services and meetings proceeded with the proper amount of deference and decorum. For example, colonial synagogues assigned seats for male and female members so that everyone knew their place in the congregation. This not only eliminated shuffling and bickering over seating each week, but also established a sort of congregational hierarchy in which the best seats went to the most prestigious congregational families (who, in turn, paid the highest dues). (In Europe, so few women attended services that there was no need to designate seats; American women, in contrast, regularly attended religious services.) 

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.