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Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. In 1664, the British took the town from the Dutch and renamed it New York. Not until 1728 was the Jewish community permitted to build a synagogue. Two years later, Congregation Shearith Israel was dedicated. In 1731, New York’s first Jewish school was founded. In 1740, when the English Parliament made Jews eligible for citizenship in the American colonies, most Jews took advantage of the privilege.

During the Revolutionary War, the community, which had grown to 300, was split between Loyalists and Rebels. Establishment of the United States brought no great change in the life of New York Jewry. At the time of the War of 1812, it is estimated that there were 400 Jews in the city. In the decades that followed, however, the community grew by leaps and bounds, its ranks swelled by immigrants from Germany and Central Europe. By 1840, the settlement numbered 13,000. Forty years later, it was 60,000. Founding synagogues, periodicals, schools, and charitable organizations, New York Jews formed a community which, by the 1870’s, could begin to claim leadership in American Jewry. After 1881, New York became the thriving center of Jewish life that it is today.

Fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, more than two million Jews came to the U.S. between 1881 and 1914; three-quarters of them lived at least for a time in New York’s Lower East Side. Here they created their own Yiddish-speaking world with hundreds of synagogues, schools and heders (one-room schools), newspapers, theaters, clubs, political groups, fraternal orders, mutual-aid societies, and the like. By 1900, there were six Yiddish dailies and numerous weekly and monthly periodicals. With readers who knew only Yiddish, these publications were more than newspapers: they served as schools, libraries, and personal guidance bureaus for thousands of immigrants eager to find their place in a strange new world. Yiddish theater flourished as it never had in the “old country.”

However, the golden days of the East Side were numbered. The East Side soon became a squalid slum. As soon as immigrants could afford to move to a better neighborhood, they did so. At first the majority of immigrants became peddlers or entered “sweatshops,” usually clothing factories, where workers were “sweated” long hours for starvation wages. In time, many peddlers, after scrimping and saving, opened small shops or factories; workers began to organize in unions to demand better conditions and a living wage. While the first generation could not escape the ghetto, the second generally did. Parents struggled to educate their children, first in the high schools, then at college. Movement away from the East Side was movement up the social ladder.

By the end of the 1920’s, New York Jewry had changed radically. After 1924, immigration laws stopped the flow of newcomers, and the center of population shifted from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn and the Bronx. By that time, too, a second generation whose mother tongue was English, not Yiddish, had grown up and mixed more freely with the older Jewish and non-Jewish communities. A relatively large proportion of the younger generation entered the professions. Those who remained in their parents’ occupations did so under new and improved conditions. Immigrants had revolutionized the garment industry, introducing new mass-production techniques. Bolstered by national and state labor laws, the great “Jewish” union organizations, such as the International Ladies Garment Workers founded in 1900 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers established in 1913, assured their members a decent return for their labor.

Before the gradual “Americanization” of immigrants and their integration into American life, the early immigrants had kept together, founding institutions to satisfy their immediate needs. But now it was necessary to educate a new generation and to organize a community which could sustain the traditions of Jewish life. Efforts to organize the sprawling mass of New York Jewry into a single comprehensive community organization, or kehilla, were made early in the century; between 1909 and 1922 such a kehilla functioned under the chairmanship of Judah Magnes. Although the kehilla plan collapsed, areas of cooperation were found. A bureau of Jewish education, later absorbed by the Jewish Education Committee, continued to function after the kehilla’s failure; so did the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies formed in Brooklyn in 1906 and a similar federation founded in Manhattan in 1917. In 1937, the two federations merged to form a single Greater New York Federation. Similarly, Zionist activities and the need to unite in defense against Nazi-fomented antisemitic groups in the 1930’s required the participation of the entire community.

The Jewish community, as it emerged in the 1940’s, tended to be organized around independent synagogues, community centers, landsmanschaften (organizations of people from the same town in Europe), and some independent Zionist organizations. In the 1950’s ever-increasing numbers of Jews moved to the suburban areas of New York. The synagogue became the basic unit of affiliation, with community and nationwide organizations working through synagogue groups. But individual Jews also continued to belong to other communal organizations such as labor groups and fraternal orders.

On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists slammed two hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, completely demolishing it twin towers. Many Jews perished among the thousands of victims. The U.S. declared war on terrorism that still continues in 2007.

At present New York is the home of about 1.5 million Jews in a total city population of about 8 million, undoubtedly the center of Jewish life in America. All national Jewish religious, national, and cultural organizations maintain offices in the city. There are many Jewish day schools at the elementary level and a large number of full-time high schools. A number of Hebrew high schools offer courses in Hebrew in the afternoons and Sundays, and many public high schools also teach Hebrew as a foreign language. A number of colleges in New York have departments of Jewish studies. Yiddish groups support a network of afternoon schools at the elementary and high school levels. The majority of children, however, receive their Jewish education in synagogue-affiliated afternoon and Sunday schools. New York’s Jewish publications include a Yiddish weekly, two Hebrew weeklies, and dozens of English language weeklies and monthlies put out by various organizations and denominations. (See also United States, History of Jews in the.)

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