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'First Jews in America' Exhibit Stretches Back to Colonial-Era Immigrants

By Emily Frost | October 26, 2016 6:16pm
 The exhibit shares the story of the arrival of the first group of about two dozen Jews in America in the 1600s. 
"The First Jews in America" Opens at the New-York Historical Society
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society aims to tell the largely unknown story of the first Jews in America through rare documents, maps, paintings and objects of worship.  

"The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World," which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 26, shows that the arrival of Jews in the U.S. started much earlier than people typically thought, exhibit co-curator Debra Schmidt Bach said. 

Many people think of the wave of German-Jewish immigrants who came in the 1840s were the first Jews to settle in America, but their arrival actually dates back to colonial times, Bach said

People also don't realize that "the first true Jewish presence in America was in New York," she said. 

In 1654, a group of 23 Jews expelled from Brazil settled in what was then known as New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant, the director of the colony, tried to expel them but was forbidden by the Dutch government, and thus the group became the first permanent Jewish settlement, co-curator Adam Mendelsohn said.

From there, the exhibit traces the story of Jews during the American Revolution and beyond, and how they shaped America and the nation shaped them. 

The Revolutionary War was an unprecedented moment for Jewish identity in the country, as Jews fought in the war and defended the new ideals of the revolution, Mendelsohn said.

Portraits and letters from colonial America show the passion Jews living here had inclusivity and religious freedom, he noted.

During this time, "there's a sense that Jews are no longer invisible outsiders," Mendelsohn said. 

Though the exhibit aims to paint a clearer picture of who the first Jews in the country were, "this exhibit is as much about America as it is about the Jews," explained Leonard L. Milberg, a collector who contributed objects to the exhibit.

The evolving ideals of the Revolution also ushered in changes to Judaism in America, as the exhibit explores the birth of Reform Judaism in Philadelphia in 1824

Jews in Philadelphia called for the religion to be made more relevant to young Jews, for services to be shortened, and for English to be introduced in prayer books and sermons, among other changes. 

From there, "The First Jewish Americans" delves into the large Jewish population in Charleston, S.C., in the early 19th Century and in other cities like Richmond, Va., Newport, R.I. and Lancaster, Pa. 

While the exhibit features artifacts from these cities, there's plenty of focus on the Big Apple. 

Upper West Siders can look at early founding documents and ritual objects from Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, now in its fifth synagogue on West 70th Street. 

The exhibit is a continuation of the museum's look at Jewish people in early American history. Last year, the New-York Historical Society featured "Lincoln and the Jews," which traced the president's support and friendship with Jews.

The museum, at 170 Central Park West, is open Tuesday through Sunday and has extended evening hours on Friday nights.