Jewish New York City

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Jews of New York 

On January 1, 2004, when we welcome the New Year, we will be marking the 350th anniversary of the establishment of a Jewish community in our country.

It was in 1654 when twenty-three Jews arrived in New Amsterdam from Recife, in the province of Pernambuco, Brazil. That coastal area of Brazil had been in the hands of the Dutch since 1633. Some Jews therefore migrated to that part of the world because they had already lived in the Netherlands, a Protestant country, where they were welcome. You will recall that the great Spinoza was born in the Netherlands whence his ancestors had fled to escape the Inquisition active in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

When the Portuguese conquered Pernambuco in 1654, the Protestant and Jewish citizens traveled to the nearest Dutch colony in the New World, i.e. Nieuw Amsterdaam, which had been established as the capital of the New Netherlands in 1624. Although initially denied residence by the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, the Jews remained in the city when the Dutch West India Company ordered him to allow Jewish settlement. These Jews formed a congregation which they called Shearith Israel, or The Remnants of Israel.

Ten years after the first Jewish immigrants arrived, the British conquered New Amsterdam and renamed it New York after the Duke of York, later to become king of England and Scotland.

In 1730, Congregation Shearith Israel built its first synagogue on Mill St. just south of Wall Street. Until 1825, Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York. Today that congregation continues at Central Park West and 70th Street.

In 1825 the second Jewish synagogue was erected in New York. It was called B’nai Jeshuron and it became the forerunner of all the Ashkenazi “shuls” and “temples” and “synagogues” now serving the 972,000 Jews in the city. That is right. Only 972,000. For the first time in 50 years the Jewish population of New York City has dropped to less than one million. In fact, 50 years ago New York had 2 million Jews, who constituted one fourth of the New York population. Now, when New York City has 8 million people, the Jews are only 12 percent. The reason is both migration and the falling Jewish birth rate. There are in fact 1.4 million Jews in Greater New York, meaning the suburbs.

Now Brooklyn has the greatest concentration of Jews with 456,000, followed by Manhattan, which has 243,000 Jews. In Nassau County, outside the city limits, there are now 221,000 Jews. 129,000 live in Westchester and Suffolk has 90,000 Jews.

The State of New York has 1,657,000 Jews, which makes us about 9.1% of the New York State population of 19 million.

About 25% of New York Jews have no religion. The orthodox, however, are the fastest growing segment of the Jewish population of this state. They grew from 13% in 1991 to 19 percent in 2003. Meanwhile the Conservative and Reform movements in New York City are losing members rapidly as their people move to the suburbs or to other states.

This movement may be seen by looking at the growth of the Jewish population in Southern and Western states. For example, California now has 999,000 Jews and Florida has 625,000, so that Florida and Maryland now both have a Jewish population totaling four percent of each state’s population. Even Arizona now has over 81,000 Jews and Texas has 131,000 Jews.

Nevertheless, New York City is still the mother of American Judaism. There are several reasons for this. First, there are religious aspects to the Jewish experience in New York. Unlike any other American city, New York has numerous synagogues readily within walking distance of anyone living there. This also meant that there was always a Jewish school available to Jewish children of the numerous immigrants who had come over the years. Those who wanted to eat only kosher food had easy access to kosher butchers and to kosher restaurants.

Religious diversity is also a great advantage for those Jews who live in New York. Thus, Reform Judaism first appeared in New York City in 1845 when Temple Emanu-el was established by German immigrants. Although Germans were predominant among Reform Jews until the first world war, the Eastern European Jews who had come from the shtetls of Russia and Poland turned towards Reform by the first world war. At that time 60% of lower east side merchants were open on Saturday. Unfortunately, the Orthodox and the Reform no longer consider each other as members of K’lal Israel, the community of Israel.

New York City is of course the birthplace of the Conservative movement in American Judaism. In 1913 the movement had 22 congregations devoted to maintaining the Jewish tradition while adapting to modern American life. The Conservative movement was invented by the German Jew Zacharias Fraenkel but grew in this country, ie. in New York. The movement in now called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It is affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In addition to religious advantages, New York City has had economic advantages for Jews and everyone else. Located on the Hudson River and featuring an excellent harbor, the city has always attracted business from overseas and from inland. With the building of the Erie Canal commerce grew immensely as New York City became the crossroads between Europe and the interior part of the United States.

New York also has many social advantages for Jews. New immigrants could use Yiddish there until they learned English. Some never learned English and lived with Yiddish until their death. Yiddish newspapers and plays once flourished there and Jewish labor unions developed into great political pressure groups.

These and many other reason kept most Jews in New York City even if New York City can be abrasive and overcrowded and seemingly uncaring.

If you are a native of New York City or if your ancestors came from there you want to go to the library and get that great book World of Our Fathers, which Irving Howe published in in 1976. This is a wonderful history of how we first came to New York, what happened to us there and how New York has left an indelible mark on the Jewish community of this great land.

May you have a wonderful and fruitful New Year and may all of us lose weight in 2004.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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