The majority of today’s American Jewish community is Ashkenazi but in Colonial times Sephardim made up the majority of the Jewish population. Historically, Sephardim are associated with Jews who lived on the Iberian Peninsula. The story of these Jews’ immigration to North America and their success in adapting their rich culture to their new home is a fascinating aspect of American Jewish history.
Many Jews from Spain fled to various Mediterranean locations after the Spanish Expulsion. Some settled in various regions of the Ottoman Empire (notably Eretz Yisrael, Salonica and Constantinople) while others crossed the border into Portugal. Which was not affected by the Inquisition until 1536. When the Inquisition did reach Portugal, the Portuguese king formally allowed Jews who were not prepared to convert to Christianity to emigrate from Portugal. In fact, however, he hindered the Jews’ departure because he needed their professional knowledge for Portugal’s expanding overseas territories and enterprises.
These events paved the way for the emigration of many Spanish and Portuguese Jews to new territories in South America. The first locations where Jews settled were on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe Island; Jewish settlers established communities there as early as 1500. From those islands Jewish settlement expanded into Brazil.
Simultaneously, a large number of Portuguese and Spanish refugees settled in Amsterdam. They established contacts in South America and sent for their co-religionists, including craftsmen and professionals, to populate the expanding colonies. Among the Dutch Jewish settlers was a shipload of 600 Jews who left Amsterdam in 1642 for Brazil. The distinguished scholars Moses Raphael de Aguilar and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca were on board. Rabbi da Fonseca was appointed rabbi in Recife, where the largest Jewish community was located, at the Kahal Zur Yisrael synagogue. There, most of the inhabitants were Portuguese Sephardic Jews. The synagogue had a mikveh, a yeshiva and a cemetery.
Historical records show that Jews in Brazil helped start the sugar industry, and built bridges, roads and a basic sewage system. Some worked as financiers and brokers. At its height in 1645, the Jewish community of Recife numbered 1,630 members. When the Portuguese captured the territory in 1654 the majority of the Jews were killed, expelled or forced to go into hiding by the Portuguese Inquisition.
Some of the Jews of Recife took refuge in Serido, a town in the Brazilian interior, while others converted and lived as Christians or as crypto-Jews. The Portuguese allowed the Jews some rights as Dutch citizens and numerous Jews succeeded in emigrating from South America. Their journeys were treacherous and the groups faced storms and pirates. Many went to the Dutch Islands of St. Thomas, Curaçao and Barbados or the British colonies in Jamaica or Surinam where they established new communities.
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In 1654 a group of 23 Jews sailed on the Saint Catherine. Their original destination was the Caribbean but the Spanish thwarted their landing and they sailed on, arriving in New Amsterdam in September of that year.
Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, tried to expel the Recife Jews as soon as they arrived, calling them a “deceitful race” and “the hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He warned that the Jews would bring harm the new colony.
But the Jews were able to make contact with co-religionists in Amsterdam who prevailed on the Dutch West India Company to overrule Stuyvesant’s objections.
On the grounds that Jews had been loyal and economically productive residents of Holland and that the same level of loyalty could be expected in the new colony, the Dutch West India Company ruled that Jews would be welcome to live and work in New Amsterdam. This group established the Sheraith Israel – Remnants of Israel – congregation which remains, to this day, an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue.