April 20, 1657: Jews in New Amsterdam Given Religious Freedom

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A Brief History

On April 20, 1657, the Dutch masters of the colony of New Amsterdam, later to become New York City, made the historic move of granting religious freedom to two dozen Jewish refugees that had fled oppression in Recife, Holland, in 1654 when the Portuguese conquered that city.

Digging Deeper

This humble beginnings of the New York Jewish population was opposed by Peter Stuyvesant, the Director of New Amsterdam.  Fortunately for the refugees, the Dutch West India Company headquartered back in Amsterdam saw otherwise and ordered the Jewish refugees be given sanctuary.  By 1661 the first Jew to own a house was Asser Levy, the first Jew known to own a house anywhere in North America.

Asser Levy Public Baths, on Asser Levy Place in Manhattan, New York City, is named after Asser Levy, one of the city’s most prominent early Jewish citizens

New Amsterdam/New York was first explored by Italians in 1524, and settled by the Dutch in 1624.  New Amsterdam, the leading settlement of New Netherlands, was invaded by a superior British force in 1664 and Stuyvesant was forced to cede the territory to the British, who in turn established the City of New York on that location in 1665.

Jewish people have been closely associated with the City of New York ever since, and today over 1.5 million Jews still reside in the city.  Jews have been mayor of New York and have had tremendous influence on all sorts of cultural aspects, from entertainment, to economics and business, to politics, sports, and science.  Only Tel Aviv, Israel, has a larger Jewish population.

Today, a native Jewish son of New York City, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running for President of the United States, the first American Jew to have gotten this close to his party’s nomination.

Sanders as a senior in high school, 1959

A short list of the many famous and prominent Americans of Jewish ancestry that hailed from New York (or the area) include Mayors Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg, actress Scarlett Johansson, actors Kirk and Michael Douglas, economist Alan Greenspan, singers Barbara Streisand (yes, her first name is actually spelled this way) and Neil Diamond, pitcher Sandy Koufax, scientist Carl Sagan, comedians Jerry Seinfeld, the Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers, and enough other prominent New York Jews to fill a phone book!

Chances are the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company had no idea the cultural impact their decision to allow Jewish refugees to settle peacefully in what became New York City would have, but that decision certainly has reverberated through the centuries since, and will assuredly continue to do so for some time to come.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite American of Jewish ancestry?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Epstein, Lawrence J.  At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, 1880-1920.  Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Kaplan, Paul.  Jewish New York: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries.  Pelican Publishing, 2014.

Rischin, Moses.  The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914, Revised edition (Harvard Paperback).  Harvard University Press, 1977.

Wenger, Beth.  New York Jews and Great Depression: Uncertain Promise (Modern Jewish History).  Syracuse University Press, 1999.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.