Small beginning, big impact

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.

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.

"There was a guy who traded vegetables on both sides of the Rhine," says the professor of Slavic studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "And in the late 1840s there was a revolution and the currency [was greatly devalued]. He immigrated to Cincinnati and picked up exactly the same thing - trading vegetables. Within a generation a Jewish community had sprung up in Cincinnati, and out of that came my family."

His grandfather and father both became involved in the world of horse racing, which elevated their family into a different, more formal world.

When Dr. Weil's father became Cincinnati's first Ford agent, he was confronted by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., who didn't think that having a Jewish agent would be good for business.

"Ford came to my dad and said, 'Look, you're Jewish, you've got to get out. I can't afford to have my name associated with a Jew,' " Weil recounts. His father told Ford to take him to court if he wanted him out, and Ford backed off.

"But through it all," says Weil, "he kept a certain basic kind of optimism and stubbornness. He had quite an impact on the general community and an enormous impact on the Jewish community. If a guy didn't give what he should have to charity, [my father] would give him trouble."

Giving to charity and getting a good education were of paramount importance to Jews and to the maintenance of a strong Jewish community.

Dr. Groopman's grandmother immigrated to the US from Russia at the turn of the 20th century and worked at a garment factory while she took night classes to learn English. Eventually her three sons became a dentist, a pharmacist, and an engineer.

"In that family, religion was important, but education was especially important, and so all three of their children went on to professional schools," Groopman says.

Upward mobility

"That's a very typical story," he adds, "in which a relatively uneducated immigrant parent not speaking the language put a tremendous amount of whatever family resources there are - usually time and energy - into the education of the children and their social mobility."

Jews have not only contributed to the belief that hard work and a solid education allow Americans to climb the social ladder, he says, but they've also helped emphasize the importance of being able to amend laws, and change customs and ideas.

"There's a tradition in Judaism of arguing with God," Groopman says. "Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and argues Him down. It's a strand in Jewish culture and Jewish history of not accepting what's given. In its contemporary American form, it takes the form of questioning accepted wisdom, which in some fashion leads to development and creativity."

Working for reform

This trait has played a role in various quintessentially American movements - such as labor reform and civil rights. It was Samuel Gompers, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor and a Jew, who famously said, "Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people.... There is not a right too long denied to which we do not aspire in order to achieve; there is not a wrong too long endured that we are not determined to abolish."

Jews later played prominent roles in the NAACP, and many marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to protest segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"Jews have brought to America the notion that a society where people are treated equally, where nobody is discriminated against, and where there isn't want and so on, would be a better place for Jews," Sarna says. "So in a peculiar way, Jewish self-interest was strengthened by advocating for a more just society."

Weil is careful to keep the Jewish influence on America in perspective, but he does admit to "a sort of sentimental pride."

In overallJewish history, he points out, 350 years is "an instant." But in America, "it stands for something. One should not be arrogant, but it's fair to take a certain amount of pride in it. We've achieved something. There's a beauty in this."

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