New York City is the largest and arguably the most important Jewish community in America. Surprisingly, most people do not know the origins and history of this Jewish community. The first Jews to arrive in New York came from Recife, Brazil (Northeast city of Brazil in the state of Pernambuco). Although they were a group of only twenty-three, their
contribution was immeasurable. Wherever they went, they left a mark of their influential presence. In Recife, Brazil, they founded Kahal Zur Israel, the first synagogue of the New World. In 1654, when they arrived in New York, then known as New Amsterdam, they founded Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America. These pioneer Jews had to fight hard but were successful in establishing Jewish temples of worship, schools, and cemeteries in a time when there was no freedom of religion.
It is truly a miracle that those Brazilian Jews were able to escape to New York at a time when there was strong anti-Semitism from the Portuguese and a war between Portugal and Holland. They faced great financial hardships when they were expelled from Brazil. After arriving in New Amsterdam, they lived in a state of poverty, hostility, and prejudice. Even though they were discriminated against by the governor, the sheriff, and the Reverend of the Dutch Reform Church, the Jewish pilgrims established one of the most dominant Jewish communities in the world. Despite an outstanding effort to blend in with the American society, these Jewish settlers managed to maintain their identity and culture. They remained connected to their Jewish roots and passed on their traditions from generation to generation. These few immigrants laid the foundation for what is today the Jewish community of New York.
The Dutch conquered and occupied Recife during a period of twenty-four years, specifically from 1630-1654. In 1664, New Amsterdam came under English occupation and became the Duke of York’s, who was the brother of King Charles II of England. New Amsterdam’s name was then changed to New York
The Jewish history keeps repeating itself: threat and persecution over the centuries obligated the Jews to move and settle in safer places. The first Dutch Jewish settlers of New York came from Brazil, but in fact their peregrination started in Holland. Before Holland, they came from Portugal, Spain, and France, among other countries. The Dutch Jews were traveling to Brazil because they had to fulfill their needs in a new country in order to support their families. Historical documents state “the first Jewish colony in America was established in Brazil, in 1624, when the Dutch took possession of that country, bringing some Jewish traders with them”. In Brazil, Judaism was tolerated but the Jews were ordered to conduct their services in seclusion. In 1642, a group of 200 Jews came to Recife under the leadership of Rabbi Aboab. Holland and its colonies attracted immigrants. At that time, Holland was engaged in a war with Britain, and the Portuguese used this situation to recapture Recife. The relevance of the “great Brazilian connection” with New York is obvious because Brazil became the “mother” of North American Jewry. The story is obviously much more complex to fit in a post but it is well documented. Twenty three Brazilians were the pioneer Jews who founded the Jewish community in New York. Fascinating!