Judi's Journal

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Historic Synagogues of America

By Judi Siegal

Twenty-six years after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, a group of Jews from Recife, Brazil landed in the Dutch city of New Amsterdam. The year was 1654 and the Jews were Spanish and Portuguese refugees fleeing the persecution of the Inquisition. They left Brazil when the Inquisition reached the South American shores and were seeking a new life here in America. The governor of New Amsterdam was vehemently against admitting Jews to his colony but he eventually bowed to pressure from his superiors in The Netherlands, and the first group of Jews, all 23 of them, were allowed to settle in what was to become New York City.

These early Jewish settlers worshipped in the Sephardic way of their forbearers and from 1654-1825, they were the only Jewish congregation in New York. Their services were conducted in Hebrew and Ladino, a kind of Spanish-Hebrew spoken by the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy and southern Europe. These 23 Jews founded a Jewish house of worship, which they called Shearith Israel, Remnant of Israel, referring to the fact that these people where part of a saved remnant of Jews who had escaped persecution. It is considered the oldest congregation in America and it is still in operation today. Its members included founders of the New York Stock Exchange and loyal supporters of the American Revolution.

Sometimes touted at as the oldest congregation in America, the Touro Synagogue of Newport, RI actually dated from 1763. Also founded by Sephardic Jews, this synagogue’s claim to fame stems from its building which is the oldest standing and still-used facility in America. The congregation was formed in 1658 and was called Yeshuat Israel (Israel’s salvation). It was later called Touro Synagogue in honor of its cantor, Isaac Touro. The members were wealthy merchants who lived in this seaport town.

In 1790, Moses Seixas, a synagogue official, wrote to George Washington, giving the congregation’s support to the general. In a now famous document, Washington wrote back to the congregation that the “government of the United States gives bigotry no sanction … to persecution, no assistance.” The Jews of Newport with great joy received this correspondence because it showed that America harbored no prejudice and that it would be a safe haven for them. This letter is often quoted to show that the United States welcomed the Jews from its earliest beginnings.

The Touro Synagogue is the only Jewish house of worship deemed a National Historic Site. Of special interest is a trap door underneath the floor where the prayer leader stands. Some legends say it was used as a stop on the Underground Railway; most likely it was built for safety. Having experienced so much persecution by the Inquisition in their native lands, these Jews were wary of their new surroundings and so built the trap door to hide in case of an anti-Semitic raid.

Congregation Mikveh Israel (Hope of Israel) of Savannah, Georgia is almost as old as the colony itself. The congregation was started by 42 Jews who brought with them a Torah, some tools for circumcision and a box to serve as an ark for the Torah. The earliest members were Sephardic but Ashkenazim also made up the membership. These Jews from Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, a kind of Hebrew-German and worshipped differently from their Sephardic brethren. The group became Mikveh Israel in 1735 but Jewish communal life really didn’t begin until after the Revolution. In 1786, Mikveh Israel became a synagogue and the Jewish community in Georgia was fully established.

Another Mikveh Israel, this time in Philadelphia, is also considered a historic synagogue. This congregation was started in 1740 and it boasts amongst its members, Hayim Solomon, the financier of the American Revolution, Rebecca Gratz, founder of social and philanthropic organizations, Dr. Cyrus Adler, Librarian of the Library of Congress and President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rev. Isaac Leeser, founder of the first Jewish publishing house, the Jewish Publication Society and Rev. Dr. Sabato Morais, a founder of the U.S. Conservative Judaism Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In our own state of Florida, in Marion County, we can find the second oldest congregation in the state. Founded as United Hebrews of Ocala, it was started in 1888 and its original building was on Northeast 2nd Street in the Tuscawilla Historic District of Ocala. In 1963, the congregation adopted the name of B’nai Darom (Sons of the South) and moved to its present location on Banyon Course in 1976.

The history of Jewish communal involvement in America stretches from before the Revolution until this present day. From Mikveh Israel (GA) to Congregation Beth Israel of Ocala (Ocala’s newest congregation and probably one of the newest in the country) Jews have built houses of worship for prayer, study and fellowship.