The Importance of Judaism in Early America

America has a long and complicated history that is made of a mix of many people from many cultures. Although the Jewish people came a little later than original settlers and in a much smaller amount, they still made a significant impact in how America evolved as a nation. Judaism and the people who followed it helped to shape the government, education, and culture that we now experience in modern day America.

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Through their own triumphs and struggles they set paths that were dug deeper by many people after them. Sometimes the paths that were created were unfortunate roads to go down, like hatred and discrimination, but there were also paths made that lead to religious freedom and educational growth. America’s Jewish community is currently majority Ashkenazi, which is Jews who are from Eastern Europe, mainly Germany. Although Jews are now mostly Ashkenazi, the first Jews who came to early America were Sephardic, which means they originated in Spain and Portugal. Jews began coming to America in 1654 when a group of twenty-three Sephardic Jews emigrated from Brazil. The United States of America was created in a very unique way that stands out from the rest of history. The United States was the first country that was created with democracy as a basis. The Bible was a big part in the start, especially the Old Testament, which is based around Jewish values.

As English settlers began arriving in what would become America, they began to describe themselves as Moses entering the Promise Land, referring to the Old Testament of the Bible, otherwise known as the story of the Jewish people. Not that the New Testament was not important to the settlers, especially because they were majority Puritans, but they identified with the story of the Jewish people escaping from Egypt strongly. In Adam Berkowitz’s article titled Thanksgiving’s Dark Origins he states, No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation. They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs. These comparisons seem a little drastic, but it seemed to put a stronger faith behind the Colony that helped them in their travels and attempts at success.

The first Jews to ever travel to what is now America were trying to escape from Recife, Brazil. They were considered Sephardic Jews because they originated from areas that are now known as Spain and Portugal. It is interesting that the first Jews in America were Sephardic because the population of Ashkenazi Jews is now much higher than of Sephardic Jews. There was around twenty-three of them and they travelled through New Amsterdam in search of a better place to settle. In A History of Jews in the United States Dr. Gary Zola is quoted, “The refugees immediately encountered hostility [such as Peter Stuyvesant’s assertion to the Dutch West India Company that they are ‘a deceitful race, hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ’] and fought for opportunity–a dynamic that is emblematic of the whole flow of American Jewish history.” There were so few Jews, so they were not a huge threat but were still enough to cause a rustle in the earlier settlers plans. After a year of not so friendly interactions between Dutch West India Company and the Jewish people, they reluctantly gave the Jews the right to settle. But only after realizing that they required investments from them to be successful. This is one of the first instances of Jews helping to create a stronger economy in The United States.

The Plantation Act was passed in 1740 to regularize and encourage immigration. This law was made so specifically Jews and other nonconforming religions could be naturalized in the colonies. In 1743 a Jewish Revolutionary officer named Abraham Alexander married a non-Jewish woman, and she became one of the first converts to Judaism in the United States. Alexander also hand wrote a prayer book for his local congregations, which he was a very active member of. It also became very apparent that George Washington was a supporter of the Jewish people, he wrote in a letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island, 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.” He also had a Rabbi present when he was officiated into office.

The Revolutionary War was a huge turning point in America’s history. People from all over the colonies came together to fight the war for their freedom from Great Britain. A group of people who were beneficial during the war but are often overlooked are the Jews, who were not a large group but still made a significant difference. The Impact of the American Revolution on American Jews shows a new perspective on Jews during this time period, The American Jewish population in the late eighteenth century numbered about 2500, scarcely one tenth of one percent of the national population. Jews’ influence loomed far larger. Concentrated as they were in developing areas, Jews naturally became intimate with leading politicians and businessmen. Jewish merchants and non-Jewish merchants traded freely. Discriminatory legislation, though it existed in the colonies, rarely limited Jews’ right to work and worship in peace. Indeed, Jews enjoyed far better conditions in the American colonies than in most other corners of the diaspora. Even though Jews were enjoying their new lives in the colonies, they were still facing anti-semitism that made it difficult for them to instantly pick a side when asked to. If the Jews wanted to stay where they were living they would have to side with the colonies, which the majority of them realized quickly. Very few Jews ended up staying loyal with Great Britain. Any and every Jewish person capable of joining in the war began fighting alongside the other colonists. Because the war did not discriminate in who it needed on the battlefield, people from all over were meeting Jews and realizing that they were not so different from themselves. As well as meeting people from other faiths, Jewish people were also able to meet other Jews who came from different part of the worlds than them. This helped to create a strong bond throughout Judaism and sparked many relationships. After the war there were many new opportunities in the colonies that were just as available to Jews as they were to everyone else. It was a little more difficult for Jews because they often had to break rituals to be available for work. The discriminations against them had faded because of the war, but they were still a very small minority in a large country. It was still not a comfortable and safe place to live for them.

As the colonies continues to grow, higher education rose in popularity. Universities such as Yale, Harvard, Brown, and other future Ivy Leagues began to build on already strong foundations with a curriculum focused on the Bible. Because they all taught about the Bible so heavily, Hebrew became a core language that was taught at these universities, unlike in Great Britain, where it was not taught anywhere. Many schools incorporated Hebrew phrases or symbols into their emblems and seals. Hebrew became so popular that some students even delivered their commencement speeches in Hebrew.

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