360 Years of Jewish Life in America: A thought for Independence Day

by | Jun 27, 2014 | Torah Thought

Jews first arrived in what is now the United States of America in 1654 — 360 years ago. A small group of Sephardic refugees, fleeing the Inquisition when the Portuguese conquered Brazil from the Dutch, suffered a series of misfortunes and were off-loaded, penniless, in New Amsterdam (as New York City was then called). The Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, didn’t want to admit them, because he felt that he already had too much diversity in the colony— Lutherans as well as Calvinists. But he was overruled by the Directors of the colony, back in the Netherlands, and the Jews were allowed to stay.

Since that humble beginning, the Jews of America have gone on to create a center of Jewish life that fully equals the great, earlier centers of Jewish civilization in the Diaspora: Eastern Europe of the past few centuries, the “Dutch Jerusalem” of the 17th and 18th centuries, France and Germany in the High Middle Ages, Andalusia in the 9th and 10th centuries, Baghdad in the Abbasid period, Babylon under the Sassanid emperors. The vigor of Jewish life in America, the contributions of our people to the general welfare of our society, and the synthesis of Jewish and democratic values actually exceed the accomplishments of earlier Jewish societies, hemmed in as they were by the corporate nature of the broader, general conditions of life. Only in America and a few other modern countries have our people enjoyed the opportunity to be citizens as well as Jews.

Precisely because we are so free, there is paradoxically a danger to Jewish continuity in America: the danger of assimilation. In medieval France or North Africa, a Jew could not leave his community without joining the majority Christian or Muslim group, and that was often distasteful even to a marginal Jew; hence, we kept our cohesiveness. But the very tolerance of American society makes assimilation an easy path…all too easy for increasing numbers of our co-religionists.

We have had thousands of years of experience in coping with the mainstream marginalizing us. Now, we need to be able to experiment with new strategies, to cope with the new challenge, of no longer being marginal.

But, as Sam the piano player sings in Casablanca, “the fundamentals still apply”—Jews who prioritize the triple values of God, of Torah and of Israel (people, land and state) are able to participate fully in the blessings of living in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” while still being part of the time-transcending story of Jews and Judaism.

Happy Independence Day!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel