The Economic and Religious Status of Jews in New York City by 1730

By Matthew L. Williams

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Jewish life in New York goes back nearly as far as the earliest colonization of the region. But the progress of these first arrivals sometimes gets lost in the broader narratives of New Amsterdam.

In 1654, thirty years after the West India Company (WIC) settled thirty Dutch families on the southern end of Manhattan, a group of twenty-three Jews requested asylum in the colony, after Brazil expelled them.[1] Another small but unnumbered group of Jews arrived from Holland in early 1655. Their presence did not please New Amsterdam’s director general, Pietrus Stuyvesant. Appointed by the WIC to enforce Dutch common law and trade policy, Stuyvesant described Jews as a “deceitful race” who continually “petitioned us for the free and public exercise of their abominable religion.”[2]

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Historians naturally disagree on the relative freedom enjoyed by the colony’s Jews. One historian has recently argued that they enjoyed “more freedom in New Netherland than in any other colony” in terms of their ability to worship (in private). Most Jews left for Holland or one of its Caribbean outposts when English forces took control in 1664, fearing the loss of their rights.[3] But in fact, New Amsterdam’s Jewish population had grown so small by the early 1660s that there were not enough men to fulfill the Torah’s requirement for group worship. As far as can be told, only one “Dutch” Jew remained in New York after 1664, Asser Levy.[4]

The handover of New Amsterdam to English forces did not inspire Jews in England to emigrate to the Americas if only because there were limited numbers to begin with. By the 1660s, England’s Jewish population had only begun to revive itself, following centuries of self-imposed exile and the 1290 edict banning Jews from the island. It was not until 1656 that Parliament, then under the sway of Oliver Cromwell, officially readmitted the group. Even so, by the 1680s there were only around 500 Jews in a total English population of around 500,000.[5] In spite of their miniscule numbers, anti-immigration Parliamentarians stoked fears of Jewish subterfuge in language that is similar to modern-day debates. One well-known opponent predicted that Jews would speed London’s increasing “fiscal centralization,” a shift away from rural agriculture to overseas trade. London itself warned that naturalizing Jews would increase the power of Jewish merchants and divert foreign trade out of England, threatening the nation’s “political affairs.”[6] Yet, even so, by 1695 only “about 100 Jews” had made it to New York, drawn equally from England and the Caribbean.[7]

In 1730, two events heralded changes that helped to transform New York into a more welcoming place for Jews. First, Governor Montgomerie’s 1730 charter – the governing document that detailed the rights of the city corporation and city residents – significantly expanded the rights of freemen.[8] Freemen comprised the “commonality”: those men who paid the mayor five pounds for the right to vote, to bring suit, and to own and dispose of “goods, chattels and all other things of what kind or quality soever.”[9] Once obtained, an individual’s free status was permanent. For this reason, Jews and other foreign “strangers” had long realized free-holding as the best pathway toward economic and legal legitimacy in the decades before English rule.[10]

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The second event concerned fundraising that took place in early 1730 to build the city’s first permanent synagogue, Shearith Israel. In the mid-1690s, Jews had begun to meet for worship at a private home on Mill Street. Such accommodations were sufficient when the numbers of Jews were low. Shearith Jacob, as the meeting room was called, had roughly thirty-seven “active members” between 1720 and 1722. To provide for better conditions of worship, a group of prominent merchants raised money to build a new synagogue to resemble the “Sephardic architectural style” of London and Amsterdam synagogues. Construction began on the empty lot next to Shearith Jacob in lower Manhattan in late 1730. When complete, the synagogue stood twenty-one feet tall and thirty-seven feet square. Seven large candles and five candelabras illuminated its interior.[11] Since it remained New York’s only synagogue until the 1820s, over time Shearith attracted newer Ashkenzi (Eastern European) religionists who sometimes clashed with the city more well-established Sephardim. Despite these tensions and simmering resentment over religious authority exerted by Shearith Israel’s elders, the synagogue “governed the Jewish population’s religious life” and represented the center of Jewish social life, as well. Elders adjudicated disputes among congregants and organized charity relief for poor Jews throughout the century.[12]

First Mill Street Synagogue, 1730

First Mill Street Synagogue, 1730

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By 1730, then, New York Jews had considerably improved their material and spiritual condition as compared their co-religionists in the 1650s. Perhaps most significantly, Jews freely and publically practiced their religion, something inconceivable under Stuyvesant. While the expansion of freemanship and rights to public worship should not be conflated with political equality in the decades before the American Revolution, by 1730 the small Jewish community in New York had take two crucial steps forward. In a follow-up post, I’ll further describe the roles played by denization and the construction of houses of worship in aiding the progress of Jews and other religious minorities.


Matthew L. Williams holds a PhD in U.S. history from State University of New York, Binghamton.


[1] Russell Shorto, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 275.

[2] See Shorto, ibid; Letter of the Directors and Councillors of New Netherland, June 10, 1656, Bontemantel Papers. Stuyvesant’s bias was grounded in anti-Semitism, to be sure, but also a concern over losing dominance of the Dutch Reformed church to outside groups. One Dutch minister complained that once one group of Jews had arrived, “many more of the same lot would follow.” Moreover, he stereotyped them as having no “God than the Mammon of unrighteousness,” and requested that “these godless rascals, who are of no benefit to the country, but look at everything for their own profit, may be sent away from here. See Letter of Rev. Johannes Megapolensis to the Classis of Amsterdam, March 18, 1655, in The Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, J. Franklin Jameson, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 392-3.

[3] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin, 2001), 255; Samuel Oppenheim, “Early History of the Jews in New York, 1664-1734.” Paper presented to the American Jewish Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA, February 12, 1911.

[4] Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 10-11.

[5] Jacob Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern England (London: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 2013), 28.

[6] William Prynne, A Short Demurrer to Jews Long Discontinued and Barred Remitter into England (London: 1656). Based on the belief that Jews acted out of self-interest as “powerful economic actors,” the City of London resisted all efforts at naturalization in the 1600s. Their opposition, referred to as “economic anti-Semitism” clashed with the “religious philosemitism” of certain Protestant evangelicals who suported Jewish immigration such as John Toland and Josiah Child. See Jonathan Karp, The Politics of Jewish Commerce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 32.

[7] Jon Butler, Becoming American (Cambridge, M.A., Harvard University Press, 2000), 26.

[8] Additionally, the Montogmerie Charter gave the corporation the right to hold elections, build streets and jails, and establish courts of general sessions (criminal acts) and courts of common pleas (civil actions) in what has been called a “mixed corporation.” See Hendrik Hartog, Public Property & Private Power: The Corporation of the City of New York in American Law, 1730-1870, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina press, 1983), 16.

[9] The New York City Consolidation Act, as in force as of 1891, with notes indicating the statutory sources, reference…” (Albany, N.Y.: Weed, Parsons, & Co. 1891), 892-894. Freemen are defined as “those merchants, artisans, and laborers who had been admitted to the freedom of the town by the municipal corporation – a status generously bestowed,” and could vote and hold office. In 1703 the poor and those unable to pay for freemanship had it granted by a Common Council Act, but Jewish voting in 1737 was disallowed due to an “anti-Semitic appeal,” indicating that the law alone did not go all the way toward equal rights. See Michael Kammen, Colonial New York, (New York: Scribner’s, 1975), 209.

[10] For an example of how the aforementioned Asser Levy transferred his burgher rights from Holland to New Amsterday, see Joyce Goodfriend, “Toleration in Dutch New Netherland,” in The First Prejudice: Religious Toleration and Intolerance in Early America, Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda, eds., (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 108. Along with Levy, Abraham de Lucena, Jacob De Acosta, Jacob Cohen Henriques, and Salvador D’Andrada won burgher rights in 1657. See Howard B. Rock, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865 (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 19.

[11] See Rock, Haven of Liberty, 44 and Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 14.

[12] Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1839-1880: Jewish landsmanshaftn in American Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 14.