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Small beginning, big impact

By Elizabeth ArmstrongCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2004

The Jews who landed in the harbor of New Amsterdam in 1654 were a penniless and weary lot. They had traveled a long and costly four months, and they had neither the strength nor the money to push farther.

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Having been exiled from their home in Brazil when Portugal overthrew the Dutch colony, many Jews attempted to flee to the Netherlands. Most were lost at sea or captured by pirates.

But a group of 23 was blown off course and landed in what would become New York and in what was then, fortunately for them, another Dutch haven.

The governor of New Amsterdam greeted them icily. Peter Stuyvesant did not like Jews and made no attempt to hide it.

But he had to answer to the West India Company in Amsterdam, Netherlands, whose directors were being urged by primary shareholders - many of them Jewish - to consider the benefits of having "loyal people" pay taxes and increase trade in the new and spacious land. So Stuyvesant was forced to allow the Jews entry.

Although a few individual Jews had come to the New World earlier, the arrival of this group 350 years ago this month is commemorated by Jews in the United States as the beginning of a profound relationship.

Few can imagine an America without a Jewish influence - from baseball great Sandy Koufax to comedians Andy Kaufman and Woody Allen, from kosher restaurants to the Hanukkah festival of lights, from schmoozing to chutzpah.

The impact of Jews on the US began, some say, as early as the moment of their arrival.

"In a sense, this first group of Jews was a test case for American plural- ism," says Leonard Groopman, a Jewish historian in New York.

"Stuyvesant knew that if you let the Jews in, you had to eventually allow other religious groups. So the first impact [on America] was not due to anything these Jews did themselves, but just the fact of their capacity to gain entry."

Soon after the first Jews settled in New Amsterdam, there followed - as Stuyvesant woefully predicted - peoples of other faiths, such as Quakers and the Amish.

However, legal protection did not guarantee social acceptance, as Quakers learned during the Salem Witch Trials, when many were burned for heresy. But in time, religious pluralism became the norm in the US.

"Ultimately, the presence of Jews has meant that our notion of religion is much broader," says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and author of "American Judaism: A History."

"Had it not been for Jews, America might have had an easier time making this a Christian country," he says. "But Jews were always saying, 'Wait a minute, if your ideals are religious freedom, that's broader than Christianity.' "

For centuries before the founding of America, Jewish populations around the world had been pushed across borders and denied basic rights, such as voting or owning land. The notion of religious freedom was alluring and drew Jews to the US in unprecedented numbers, Dr. Sarna says.

After fleeing religious intolerance in such places as Brazil, Spain, Jamaica, and England in the late 1600s, some 15,000 Jews founded communities in New York, Philadelphia, Newport, R.I., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Between 1820 and 1880, according to Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, another 250,000 came from Germany, and although this wave slowed to a trickle until the 1940s, it never stopped.

In the aftermath of World War II, another 250,000 Jews arrived in America, most of them Holocaust survivors. An additional 140,000 came from the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1990.

The immigration continues

Today, America is home to the largest number of Jews in the world, with 5.8 million. Israel runs a close second, at 4.8 million, and France is a distant third, with 600,000.

About 50,000 Jews immigrate to the US every year.

With these influxes have come not only Judaism as a faith, but Judaism as a culture. Irwin Weil loves to tell the story of his ancestors' arrival in Cincinnati in the 1840s.