Jewish Immigration to America (02:13)
Jewish synagogues are unique in America's religious landscape. Most Jews arrived in the early 20th century as refugees from pogroms in Poland and Russia. An earlier wave came from Germany in the mid-1800s; both groups spoke Yiddish and were Ashkenazi.
Shearith Israel (03:05)
Sephardic Jews with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean roots arrived in America during the colonial era. New York City's synagogue is the oldest congregation in the U.S. The building provides a community space for prayer and reading the Torah.
Synagogue Practices (03:18)
Jewish men pray daily at Shearith Israel. On Saturdays, the Torah is read sequentially to the congregation on an annual cycle. Hear Ashkenazi and Sephardic customs. Western Sephardim follow orthodox tradition; learn about the ark and scroll symbolism.
Synagogue Orientation (01:30)
The ark is placed on the Eastern wall toward Jerusalem—a rule adopted by Christian churches. The Temple of Jerusalem held the original Ten Commandments.
Synagogue Origins (02:39)
Jewish people began worshiping independently while in exile in Babylon, offering prayer instead of sacrifices. After a Jewish Rebellion, the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem. Non-hierarchical worship continued in congregations.
First Jewish New Yorkers (03:16)
In 1654, Sephardic Jewish pilgrims fleeing persecution in Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam. Men stood watch against hostile Native Americans on Wall Street. Asser Levy negotiated civic rights for the community.
Sephardic Jewish History (03:46)
A chapel at Shearith Israel recreates Manhattan's first permanent congregation and contains objects from the Iberian Peninsula. Jewish culture and scholarship flourished under Moorish rule, and Jews became advisers to Christian kings.
Spanish Inquisition (02:03)
Mobs attacked Jewish communities accused of bringing the plague to Europe. Many converted to Christianity in Spain, but secretly practiced Judaism. In the late 1400s, Ferdinand and Isabella implemented a reign of terror and burned many "relapsed" Jews at the stake.
Sephardic Exile (02:14)
In 1492, Inquisition leader Torquemada convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to expel Jews from Spain. Some converted to Catholicism but many fled east or to the Americas.
Touro Synagogue (03:46)
During the colonial era, Newport was a refuge for people of diverse faiths. In 1763, a Sephardic congregation built North America's second synagogue; hear a description of the dedication ceremony. Gentile architect Peter Harrison was inspired by the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.
American Revolution (02:20)
During the War of Independence, Jewish community members like Hyam Solomon of New York gave financial support to the patriot cause. Many lost their fortunes investing in Continental Congress currency.
Religious Freedom (02:48)
Some members of the Jewish community served under Washington during the American Revolution. He kept his promise of liberty and equal citizenship. On Memorial Day, Shearith Israel members honor their patriot ancestors.
Preserving Jefferson's Legacy (03:31)
People of diverse faiths had to pay church taxes in most colonies. Thomas Jefferson led a campaign to separate church and state in Virginia. After his death, Shearith Israel member Uriah Phillips Levy purchased his estate and planned a national monument.
Uriah Levy (02:42)
The first Jewish-American career naval officer worked his way up to become commodore of the Mediterranean fleet. He opposed flogging and rum rations, campaigned against injustice, and stood up to religious prejudice.
Affirming American Heritage (02:48)
Congregation Shearith Israel has remained true to colonial architecture and democratic ideals. Many Ashkenazi Jews have joined the Sephardic tradition. Poet Emma Lazarus, Justice Nathan Cardozo, and Uriah Levy lie in its cemetery.
Emma Lazarus (01:41)
This American Jewish poet worshiped at Shearith Israel and helped improve the lives of Jewish immigrants. Hear an excerpt of her poem "The New Colossus" engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
Credits: America’s First Synagogues: Landmarks of Faith (01:43)
Credits: America’s First Synagogues: Landmarks of Faith
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