Exploring 350 Years of Jewish American History on the Internet

By Berson, Michael J.; Cruz, Barbara C. | Social Education, April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Exploring 350 Years of Jewish American History on the Internet

Berson, Michael J., Cruz, Barbara C., Social Education

MENTION THE FOLLOWING contemporary names to most secondary students and their faces will illuminate with an immediate flash of recognition: Alicia Silverstone, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Lisa Loeb, and Adam Sandler. Many might also be surprised to learn that these celebrities are Jewish. Yet, since 1945, the United States has been home to the world's largest concentration of Jews. (1) The roots of the American Jewish community date back to more than 100 years before the establishment of the United States. A review of U.S. history shows that Jewish Americans have been involved in the country's social fabric, development, and politics since 1654.

The recent Library of Congress exhibition, From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, has sparked renewed interest in the history of Jews in the United States. The collection featured more than 200 documents, images, and artifacts that chronicle the Jewish American experience. In exhibit from September through December 2004, From Haven to Home related the vast and diverse history of Jews in America and highlighted notable Jewish figures such as Albert Einstein and Harry Houdini. The resources that resulted from the exhibit provide an excellent impetus for infusing the history of Jewish Americans into social studies classrooms.

As educators become more knowledgeable about Judaism's rich history in the United States, they have struggled to incorporate more information about Jewish Americans into their classes. But while many excellent history books exist on the topic, few resources are available to help teachers infuse this material into their curriculum. And although there are several outstanding websites, a general search on the internet often generates sites that are clearly inappropriate, if not defamatory or offensive. Fortunately, we have found a number of excellent internet and print resources to assist educators.

Jewish American History

While Jews have been in America for 350 years, a cursory review of most U.S. history textbooks reveals that the Jewish experience has been relegated to three distinct time periods: the founding of Rhode Island; immigration during the period of the 1890s to 1920s; and World War II and the Holocaust. And while these time periods are indeed important when discussing the Jewish experience, Jewish American history is filled with complex events that personify the American ideals of freedom, democracy, and the pursuit of religious tolerance.

In 1654, 23 Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) from Brazil on the Sainte Catherine. They had gone to South America after being exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. But when the Portuguese reconquered Brazil, the Jewish refugees had to find a new home once again. Although their arrival in New Amsterdam was not immediately met with a warm reception, the group established a community and prospered. Three hundred years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower described the 1654 arrival of the Jews in New Amsterdam as "'an event meaningful not only to the Jews of America, but to all Americans--of all faiths, of all national origins." (2) Soon, in addition to what would later become New York and New Jersey, Jews began settling in the port communities of New Port, Rhode Island (1677), Savannah, Georgia (1733), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1745), and Charleston, South Carolina (1750). (3)

By most accounts, Jews were an integral part of the new republic. On the eve of the American Revolution, between 1,500 and 2,500 Jews lived in the American colonies, according to estimates. (3) Many Jews fought bravely and with distinction in the patriot cause. Jewish revolutionary sympathizers on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius defied the British blockade and delivered critical supplies to the rebels. After a visit to Rhode Island's Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1790, President George Washington exchanged a series of warm letters with the group.

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