Throw Back Thursday 1654: The First Rosh Hashanah in North America

shearith-israel-new-york-sanctuaryThe sanctuary of Congregation Shearith Israel now located on Central Park West. They are the oldest Jewish congregation in the New World with their roots in Dutch New Amsterdam. Source: Shearith Israel. 

On September 12, 1654 the first Rosh Hashanah services in the North America were held in New Amsterdam.

That’s right we’re headed back to the Stuyvesant administration for this week’s column. Although Stuyvesant’s heavy hand kept New Amsterdam on the historic map, he also had a darker side: bigoted xenophobia to be exact. He didn’t like the native populations of the area, he didn’t like Catholics and he certainly didn’t like Jews. It must have horrified him to hear the reputed 18 languages spoken on the streets of New Amsterdam in the year 1654. In fact the Dutch were a minority in their own city.

You could imagine Peg Leg Pete’s double horror when a ship of 23 Sephardic Jews escaping the Portuguese Inquisition in Pernambuco (now Recife) Brazil sailed into New Amsterdam looking to lay down roots. For Stuyvesant, the trouble actually started on August 22 when a Dutch ship called the Pereboom (Pear Tree) brought an Akskenazi man by the name of Jacob bar Simon into New Amsterdam. Stuyvesant couldn’t draft the petition fast enough to order the expulsion of all Jews from his colony. He pleaded with the Dutch West India Company that “none of the Jewish nation be permitted to infest New Netherland.”

jewish-memorial-flagpost-peter-minuet-plazaThe base of a flag pole on Peter Minuet Plaza erected in 1954 to commemorate the first Jewish community in the North America. Also a stop on Untapped Cities’ Remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam: Tracing the Castello Plan Tour

The group of Sephardic refugees quickly sent a counter petition asking Stuyvesant’s superiors, “That your Honors be pleased not to exclude but grant the Jewish nation passage to and residence in that country; otherwise this would result in a great prejudice to their reputation.” They went on to ask that “the Jewish nation be permitted to travel, live and traffic there, and enjoy liberty on condition of contributing like others.”

Stuyvesant, thinking he had this request in the bag, was thrice horrified to find that his petition was thrown out by the home office. They chided their Director General reminding him that he was running a company town not a “city on the hill” like those Puritanical killjoys to the north. They told him that no one should be turned away because of their religious beliefs. Also quite a few investors in the Dutch West India company were wealthy Jewish men…so there was that to consider as well.

corner-of-south-william-street-lower-manhattanThe corner of Broad Street and South William where it was said the first North American Rosh Hashanah took place in a private home. Shearith Israel’s first temple would go on to be located on South William until the 1700’s. Today the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) Building sits on the site. 

In a later company policy stemming from Stuyvesant’s petition, the Dutch West India built the foundation for New York’s tradition of multicultural tolerance:

“The consciences of men ought to be free and unshackled, so long as they continue moderate, peaceable, inoffensive and not hostile government. Such have been the maxims of toleration by which this city has been governed; and the result has been, that the oppressed and persecuted from every country have found among us asylum from distress. Follow in the same footsteps and you shall be blessed.”

shearith-israel-cemetary-plaqueA plaque sitting at the entrance of the first Shearith Israel Cemetery on St. Jame’s Place in Lower Manhattan. 

On September 12, 1654, amid the dueling petitions, a Rosh Hashanah service was held in a private house on the corner of Broad and Mill Street (now South William Street). It was the start of Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel). It was the only Jewish congregation in New York until 1825 and is the oldest existing Jewish congregation in the North America.

new-amsterdam-shearith-israel-mapA map of New Amsterdam circa 1654. The first Rosh Hashanah took place at a private residence on the corner of Broad Street (then a canal) and Mill Street (now South William Street). Source: Shearith Isreal

Although Shearith Israel’s temple is now up on Central Park West, there a few traces of the historic congregation downtown including a commemorative flag pole in Peter Minuet Plaza and the burial ground of those 23 founding Shearith Israel members now locked away and all but forgotten on St. Jame’s Place and Oliver Street.

shearith-israel-cemetery-grave-stones-lower-manhattanThe first Cemetery of Shearith Israel on St. Jame’s Place. The area is locked and appears to have been neglected for some time. 

You can hear much more about Peter Stuyvesant, Shearith Israel and see some of these sites up close on our Remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam: Tracing the Castello Plan tour.

 Dutch New Amsterdam, New Amsterdam, Rosh Hashanah, Today in NYC History

2 Responses
  1. Sorry to point out an inaccuracy here, but 1654 in New Amsterdam was not the first Rosh Hashanah celebrated in the New World. New Amsterdam’s new Jewish immigrants (or migrants, as they came from another place that had been part of the Netherlands holdings in the New World, Nieuw Holland, part of present day Brazil) actually were from Recife, in Brazil. They lived there for years before leaving after Portugal defeated the Dutch in the Second Battle of Guararapes, and then took control of Recife from the Dutch. Recife’s Jews emigrated (fearing the Portuguese Inquisition). But they certainly had practiced their religion while living under Dutch rule, they would have had many years of High Holiday services, so tjose would have predated 1654.

    Sorry….

    • justin rivers Reply

      Hi Jeff, Justin here. Thank you for pointing that out. None of my sources had the length of time the community had spent in Recife. One even went so far as to say Recife was almost a stop over for them. But looking back at my Shearith Israel sources they do claim to be the first Jewish congregation in North America. So I have updated the post to say it was the first Rosh Hashanah in North America instead. Thanks again for the information and for pointing out the inaccuracy.

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