At the January 23 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), James Kaplan, president of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, previewed what he described as, “our newest and greatest upcoming project. We will be applying for a co-naming of South William Street, in front of Millennium High School, in honor of the Mill Street Synagogue, which was the first synagogue in North America. It is, in our view, the most important site in American Jewish history. And it’s here.”
The site on South William Street that Mr. Kaplan was referring to is now an Icon Parking Garage. But, 364 years ago, a series of improbable events in Europe and South America converged to catalyze the founding of the first Jewish house of worship in what is now the United States.
The story begins in 1492, when Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were ordered to leave Spain. Five years later, a similar Edict of Expulsion was issued in Portugal. Tens of thousands of Jews fled from both nations. By the 1640s, several thousand had landed in the New World, where they were drawn to Dutch colonies (as a result of that kingdom’s policy of religious tolerance), such as the Caribbean island of Curaçao, and parts of what is now Brazil.
Strangely enough, very few came during this period to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, or its principal city, New Amsterdam (now Manhattan Island) — perhaps dissuaded by its reputation for welcoming a broad range of Christian Protestant denominations, but being among the least tolerant of Holland’s overseas colonies in its policy toward Jews.
But in 1654, Portugal conquered the Dutch colony in Brazil. The new administration quickly showed itself to be as staunchly Catholic (and as militantly anti-Semitic) as its home government in Europe. Among the first institutions that the Portuguese set up was the Inquisition, which quickly began searching for Jews.
In that year, 23 Jewish refugees set sail from Brazil for New Amsterdam, where the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant attempted to ban them. But Stuyvesant’s word was not final. He was, in effect, a corporate executive in the Dutch West India Company, and needed permission from his bosses in Holland. He wrote to company’s board, arguing that, “Jewish settlers should not be granted the same liberties enjoyed by Jews in Holland, lest members of other persecuted minority groups, such as Roman Catholics, be attracted to the colony.”
The directors sent this reply on April 26, 1655: “We observe that it would be unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss sustained by the Jews in the taking of Brazil and also because of the large amount of capital, which they invested in shares of this Company. After many consultations we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail and trade in New Netherland and to live and remain there provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company, or the community, but be supported by their own nation. You will govern yourself accordingly.”
Stuyvesant had no choice but to comply. He appears to have consoled himself by prohibiting the Jews from erecting a synagogue (ordering them instead to gather for worship in their homes), and by publicly torturing Quakers.
Ten years later, however, the British seized New Amsterdam. This proved propitious, because in 1657, Oliver Cromwell England had permitted Jews to return to England (which had expelled them in 1290). The rulers of what had become New York had very little interested in suppressing Jews.
By the 1660s, the fledgling Jewish congregation had named itself Shearith Israel (literally, “remnant of Israel), and was informally known as, “the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue,” in a nod to its origins among refugees from persecution on the Iberian Peninsula.
For decades, the worshipers met in the rented loft of horse-powered grist mill, located just east of the Broad Canal, located on what is now Broad Street. (This location enabled nearby farmers to grind recently harvested grain into flour, before loading it onto ships bound for England.) As the young city’s street grid expanded, the path in front of the mill became known as Mill Street. (The same thoroughfare is now called South William Street.)
In 1730, the congregants of Shearith Israel petitioned John Montgomerie, the British governor of New York for permission to build their own house of worship, rather than continuing to meet in the loft of the grist mill. (Two years earlier, in anticipation of receiving approval, they had begun a fund-raising campaign to purchase land and erect a building to their own specifications.) Once Montgomerie had given his blessing, they moved ahead with the construction of the Mill Street Synagogue, a small masonry building on a lot next door to the mill in which they had been meeting for almost a century.
The structure they erected, which appears to have been designed to be inconspicuous, stood beside a now-vanished creek, which supplied water for the ritual mikvah bath. By 1846, historian John Fannin Watson recalled in his book, “Olden Time in New York,” that “I once heard from the Phillips family, that in early times when the Jews first held their worship there, they had a living spring… in which they were accustomed to perform their ablutions and cleanings according to the rites of their religion.”
Because there were no rabbinical seminaries to train rabbis in America in the 1700s, Shearith Israel relied upon self-taught spiritual leaders. Among these was Gershom Mendes Seixas, who took over as cantor (and de facto clergyman) at the age of 23. Seixas cultivated friendships with the leader of other religious denominations in New York (especially Episcopalians), many of whom attended his services and invited him to speak in their churches.
When the American Revolution began, Seixas threw in his lot (and that of his congregation) with the Patriot cause, choosing to close Shearith Israel and leave New York, rather than swear allegiance to the British. It remained shuttered until his return in 1784. Five years later, Seixas was among the guests of honor at George Washington’s inauguration, a few blocks away from the synagogue. Seixas also went on to help reopen King’s College, under its new name: Columbia University. (He was appointed its first Jewish trustee, and remained the only one until 1928, when Benjamin Cardozo was appointed to the board.)
Other members of Shearith Israel went on to collaborate in the founding of the New York Stock Exchange, Mt. Sinai Hospital, the 92nd Street Y, and many more renowned New York institutions.
From its founding in 1654, Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City, until 1825. The same synagogue still exists, although it is now headquartered on Central Park West, at West 70th Street. That structure, built in 1897, is, the synagogue’s fifth home. The original Mill Street structure was rebuilt and expanded in 1818, after which the congregation moved to Crosby Street (in 1834), then to 19th Street (1860), and finally to the Upper West Side.
“Today,” Mr. Klein observed at the January 23 CB1 meeting, “the location of the Mill Street Synagogue is the site of a parking garage. Very few people know that the most important synagogue in North America started right here in Lower Manhattan, that this is where the American Jewish community began and grew.”
“We hope to have a dedication ceremony,” for the proposed co-naming of South William Street, “by May 15,” Mr. Klein concluded, “which will be the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. I urge you to support us.”