The first colonial Jews

Dutch Jews in New York

On August 22, 1654, a handful of Ashkenazic Jews arrived in the port of New Amsterdam, the first known Jews to set foot in the Dutch settlement. They had sailed from Holland and had passports issued by the Dutch West India Company.

In September, they were followed by 23 Sephardic Jews, this time without passports, fleeing the Portuguese reconquest of Dutch possessions in Brazil and the Caribbean.

Over the extreme objections of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch West India Company insisted that the Sephardim be granted permanent residency in New Amsterdam on the basis of “reason and equity.” After much back and forth involving letters and long sea passages, the Jews were granted limited residency in 1655 .

Because New Amsterdam was driven by commerce rather than religion, the young colony was astonishingly diverse. By 1645 up to half the population were not Dutch at all but rather Finns, Swedes, Germans, Walloons, English, and even a handful of “half-free” Africans from Brazil. The Dutch West India Company were laser-focused on building the colony’s population and attracting competent people to make it an economic success. They did not give two pins about religion. I find it cheering that, at the same time they were ordering the insufferable Stuyvesant to welcome his Jewish brethren, company directors also threatened to fire every Calvinist preacher in the colony if they didn’t quit harrassing Lutherans.

Most of the Jews in our family I have traced back to ships arriving in the 1680s and 1690s. But there are some unaccounted for, and it is possible that some of our ancestors were among this very first group.

Portuguese Jews in Newport

New Amsterdam in 1654 was the first port of entry for the Portuguese Jewish, but three years later a score more arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. These immigrants established what would become for a time the largest Jewish settlement in North America.

A century later, from 1760 until the outbreak of the Revolution, there were more than a thousand Jews in Newport. During that period Isaac Touro, who had come from Jamaica, was the rabbi of the congregation. His son Judah Touro would later become a close friend and mentor to our own A.K. Josephs. In 1762 the elder Touro led the building of Touro Synagogue, now the oldest such building in the country. There is mention in their literature of a stone for “Josephs, the unfortunate, which is not far from 20 ft from the Gate of entrance, and not far from 12 ft from the Fence on the Kay Street side,” and I would surely like to know the story behind it.

The Revolution dispersed the community, which never regained its importance. The Jews, who overwhelmingly supported the patriot cause, had their property confiscated when the British took the town. Meanwhile, three leading Newport Jews – Isaac Touro, Myer Polock (son of our ancestor Rabbi Myer Polock), and Isaac Hart – were Tory sympathizers who either left town or were hounded out after the war and also lost their property. Polock was a wealthy merchant with close business ties to the British; he also owned two slave ships. He continued importing tea throughout the war against the demands of the Americans. He was stripped of his rights and property and died in 1779. His sister, Bilhah Polock Jacobs, was A.K.’s grandmother and is buried in New York’s tiniest cemetery on W. 11th in Greenwich Village.

Lest we feel bad about Uncle Myer Polock’s loyalties, consider other relatives from this branch of the family: Jacob Isaacks, great-uncle to A.K., was a Newport merchant who lent the Rhode Island patriots three four-pounder guns during the Revolution. Another great-uncle, Solomon Simson, served in the New York militia and donated cannon and lead to make bullets.

George Washington, “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” August 18, 1790.

In August 1790, George Washington visited Newport and brought with him a letter addressed to the Touro congregation, in which he promised that the government of the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” A year before the Bill of Rights came into being, it was the first statement on religious tolerance in the new United States. He concluded:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

– G. Washington

The Touro congregation reads this letter aloud every year in August to commemorate Washington’s visit.

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