Religion in the Thirteen Colonies

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Could there have been a Jewish colony in the Americas?

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The life of Jewish settlers in early America is an untold story. Jews immigrated to the colonies for much the same reasons as others: religious freedom, economic opportunities, and freedom from government persecution. For the most part, except religious practice, Jewish settlers were indistinguishable from the others. They dressed the same, attended many of the same functions, were farmers, and were active in defense of the colonial community. Jewish colonists worked hard to make America home.

Could a Jewish colony ever had been created in America? The earliest Jewish colonists on the American continent settled in New Amsterdam. At first, they faced incredible persecution from the traditional Christian settlers in the colonies, even to the point of the demands placed on them to return to Amsterdam. The Jewish colonies resisted and petitioned to stay in the colony. They were granted permission by governing authorities in the Netherlands to remain as a part of the settlement, but some restrictions were placed on them as a condition of the Jewish settlers remaining a part of the colony. Historians believe the synagogue started by the Jews in Amsterdam, Shearith Israel (1655), is the first Jewish Synagogue in America and remains active today.

Rhode Island was another area Jewish colonists settled in the 1650s. Migrants from Portugal, Spain, and Holland settled in what is now New Port and established a vibrant Jewish community. In the colonies of Pennsylvania, a small contingent of Jewish colonists located in the outlying areas separated from the larger colonial townships. They made regular trips across the Appalachian Mountains, establishing contact with Native Americans, and they were some of the earliest frontiersmen. In South Carolina and Georgia, Jewish migrants played an essential role in settlement of the colonies. Jewish immigrants arrived in Georgia in 1733 and established Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. It is the oldest congregation in the South.

In one sense, Jewish colonists were not very different from the diverse group of people of the early colonists. They immigrated to the colonies for the same reasons: religious freedom, economic opportunity, and freedom from government persecution. The men and women of the Jewish faith established successful communities and carved out places in the colonies to pursue the same goals as other colonists. In a metaphorical sense, Jewish settlers created a colony based on faith and belief.

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