By Sophia Ostapenko
Much of Lower Manhattan’s long history is well-known: It’s where the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, where the oldest city park (Bowling Green) still resides, and where George Washington took the first Presidential oath of office. Not as well-known: It’s also home to the first synagogue founded in North America, a Sephardic congregation called Shearith Israel (Hebrew for remnant of Israel).
Shearith Israel is currently located on 2 West 70th Street, but in 1654, when the synagogue was first established, it was only blocks away from where the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust resides today.
Congregation Shearith Israel was founded by Sephardic Jews who left a Dutch colony in Brazil after Portugal won control of the colony. The new Portuguese leaders were devoutly Catholic and strongly anti-Semitic, installing an Inquisition in their new Brazilian territory. Brazil’s Jews fled to other Dutch colonies in the New World.
Governor Peter Stuyvesant attempted to ban these Jewish refugees from coming to New Amsterdam, but his bosses in Holland overrode Stuyvesant. They allowed twenty-three refugees to come and establish new lives in what is today Lower Manhattan. These twenty-three refugees were the ones who founded Shearith Israel.
The establishment and growth of the Jewish community, which included Sephardic and Ashkenazi members, allowed the Congregation to meet in rented spaces until 1730. The community continued to expand and diversify, and in 1730, Congregation Shearith Israel received its first building designated for a synagogue. The location of the first synagogue was on Mill Street (now known as South William Street).
Shearith Israel was the only Jewish Congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825.
Sophia Ostapenko is a PR intern at the Museum.