The History of Jewish Life In America

Jews have lived in the United States since 1654 — before the states were even united — when twenty-three Sephardic settlers fled to New Amsterdam. Today, the Jewish population of America stands at 7.5 million. Overcoming brutal sweatshop conditions, assimilationist pressure, antisemitic regulations and even lynchings, American Jews have helped positively shift the country’s politics and economics. Though they weren’t always welcomed with open arms, and despite the challenges they have faced over time, American Jews have flourished in what is now home to the world’s second largest community of Jews.

  1. The first Jewish community in America was founded in 1654 by:
    • Jewish refugees from Brazil
    • Jewish refugees from New Amsterdam
    • Jewish settlers from Amsterdam
    • Jewish soldiers rewarded with land after fighting for the Dutch
  2. Jews were allowed to stay in New Amsterdam under these conditions:
    • They could not openly practice Judaism.
    • They were not allowed to marry non-Jews.
    • They could not build a synagogue or run for public office.
    • They could not open businesses competing with Christian ones.
  3. George Washington said Jews were welcome in America through:
    • A freedom of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution.
    • An allegory he told to the U.S. Congress about citizenship.
    • A direct address to American Jewish leaders.
    • A letter sent to a synagogue.
  4. Ulysses S. Grant is famous in American Jewish history for:
    • Both expelling Jews during the Civil War and being the first U.S. president to attend a synagogue dedication.
    • Passing the first restrictive American laws over where Jews could live.
    • Appointing the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy Land.
    • Nominating a Jew to be secretary of state.
  5. The assassination of the Russian Czar in 1881 and subsequent pogroms resulted in:
    • Massive Jewish emigration to safer parts of Russia.
    • Large numbers of Jews converting to Christianity to escape violence.
    • Some 2.5 million Jews fleeing to the United States.
    • The removal of citizenship for Russia’s Jews.
  1. The video excerpts the famous letter George Washington sent Jews in Rhode Island, welcoming their citizenship in America. Read the entire letter here. It states that Jews “who live under [America’s] protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Jews elsewhere at the time faced serious physical and legal challenges as second-class residents. What warning was the new president giving? Based on America’s promise of universal freedom for citizens, does this message surprise you? Why or why not?
  2. In the mid-to-late 1800s, American Reform Judaism’s creators favored English prayer over Hebrew liturgy, social action over ritual observance, and the ethics of the prophets over Jewish nationalism (soon to be called Zionism). Today’s Reform Judaism has in many regards returned to Jewish tradition, albeit with modern egalitarianism. Read this article about early Reform in America. Did what the early reformers try to do make sense for that time and place based on their desire to be at least as American as Jewish? In answering, try to suspend your early 21st century mindset for that of a century-and-a-half ago.
  3. Starting in the mid-1990s, the comedian/actor Adam Sandler became wildly popular with American Jews for his four versions of “The Chanukah Song.” Listen to the raucous and positive reception to his fourth version, performed live in 2015. Based on what you now know about American Jewish history, does this response surprise you? Why or why not? Why do you think so many Jews and non-Jews had such a positive response?
  4. Built by various waves of immigration – first Sephardi, German, and then Eastern European, and in recent decades Soviet, South African, South American and Israeli Jews – today’s American Jewish community is large and diverse. If you live in America, discuss what it means to be an American Jew today. In doing so, note the different types of synagogues and practices in your community. Why do you think American Jews have always been so involved in public and civic activities? How do you think an uninvolved observer – perhaps a journalist or a sociologist – would describe your community?
  1. Use this ready-made lesson plan about the history of Jewish life in America.
  2. Divide your students into groups of three. Using the American Jewish History timeline, assign each group to research one theme from different eras. Topics could be Jews who fought bigotry, military heroes, Jews in public service, religious leaders, etc. For example, students could research people who fought bigotry (Asser Levy, Uriah P. Levy, Abraham Joshua Heschel). Then, in their groups, the students will analyze similarities and differences of their events.
  3. Using the same timeline, divide the students into groups of four. Ask them do one of these activities:
    • Make a chart of corresponding events in American and world history. Discuss how (if at all) these events were paralleled in the larger American and world society. An example might be how, as the United States was cementing its Constitution, the French Revolution – the first instance of full citizenship rights for Jews in Europe — began.
    • Create a Jewish history “Jeopardy” game about American Jewish history, which will then be played for the class.
    • Break the students into groups and have them pick what they consider the top 5 or 10 events in American Jewish history. Then have them rank the events. Lead a class discussion on what at least a majority would agree are the top three events. Any of these events could serve as the basis of a future lesson.
    • Note: Any of these activities could be done individually as well.
  4. Using the resources of a local Jewish Federation and/or state or city Jewish and general history society, have students learn about the history of your own general and Jewish community. (Often videos or speakers on such topics will be available from such institutions.) Create a list of prominent individuals from that research. Then, in pairs, have students research a particular event or individual. They can present that to the class in various formats they choose: a PowerPoint presentation, a TV talk-show style interview, a brief movie or documentary, etc.
  5. Play our Kahoot about the history of Jewish life in America!
  1. Jews in America – throughout their history and today – have described themselves in many ways. Some say they are religious, others call themselves cultural, and yet others say they have a “Jewish sense” about them, but are not involved in organized life. Some say pro-Israel or Zionist activities defines their Judaism while others prefer to put their time into Jewish communal life via Jewish federations and other groups. If you had to pick one of these labels – or another one – as the most essential element of helping American Jewish life survive, what would it be? What are the advantages and disadvantages to this single label for the future of your Jewish community?
  2. There are about 7.5 million American Jews today. They have a seemingly endless amount of major and minor labels — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Zionist, Traditional, non-denominational, Humanist, Hasidic, Modern Orthodox (sometimes called Open Orthodoxy), Israeli-American, Haredi, etc. Does the way you and your family live fit any of these labels? Are they a combination? Could you come up with a label for your Jewish life? Share specific details that makes the label (or labels) applicable.
  3. Read this article about our era’s great challenges for American Jews – technology, assimilation, antisemitism, etc. Based on the authors’ conclusions, do you think American Judaism is doing enough to tackle the challenges? Take one area – technology, outreach to unaffiliated Jews, intermarried Jews, the Orthodox and non-Orthodox divide, etc. Brainstorm ways to bring these groups closer to other Jews. Do you see any of that going on in your community?
  4. In this New York Times Books Review essay by Gal Beckerman, Gal writes that “anti-Semitism is not what defines the experience of Jews in America today; assimilation is.” In detail – including personal experiences and observations – discuss your reaction to this contention.

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