Jacob Barsimon, Asser Levy and Solomon Pietersen were the first set of Jews to set foot in New Amsterdam in late August/early September 1654, which would make this the 354th anniversary of the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America. History tells us that these and others who followed came to the new world by choice, and were not fleeing religious persecution. As the records are not completely clear as to who was on what vessel, another man by the name of Jacob Aboaf figures on the passenger list of the Peereboom, a ship that made the voyage between the old and new world quite extensively. Among the Sephardic Jews were also some Ashkenazic Jews (Levy and Pietersen) who were fleeing to the new colonies from the renown Khmelnitzki pogroms. By the end of the century, the Jewish population had grown to 3% of the total, or 6000 people.
Other ships arrived almost concurrently from Brazil, carrying Jewish passengers who were clearly unhappy about Portugal's conquest of the land in 1654. There is some speculation that these passengers may have been forced to leave their belongings behind, as they arrived "weeping and bemoaning their misery" according to an account by New Amsterdam’s resident minister, Domine Johannes Megapolensis, in one of his reports back to the Classis at Amsterdam. Megapolensis did not hide his disdain for the Jews by calling them "godless rascals" whose basic motives were trade and profit. This very specific view of the Jews at the time was utilized as a reason to curb their immigration to the new land.
For example, in 1641, Johan Maurits, governor-general of Dutch Brazil, was told by resident merchants that the colony was being overrun by Jews and “every contract with a Jew ends in bankruptcy of a Christian.” In his reply, however, Maurits stated that Christians should be more careful, avoiding their “lust for speculation.” Besides, he said, Jews deserved and earned more liberties than others as they have always been “reliable political allies.” Obviously, this was a view not held by Megapolensis or Stuyvesant.
Who were these “godless rascals”?
Interestingly, many of them may have originated from Recife, Brazil and some may have found themselves stranded on the island of Jamaica on their way to New Amsterdam, due to unfavorable winds. In November of 1654, a complaint was deposed with the Dutch on behalf of the Sephardic Community protesting the unlawful detention of the Portuguese Jews on the island. As to why they had aspired to settle in the New Netherlands is fairly clear: there existed new opportunities for fur trading and grain products. Following what was termed as Amsterdam's Golden Age, many of its citizens were also infected with an adventurous spirit.
Add to that a string of epidemics took the lives of over 50,000 people between 1636 and 1654. Blessed with the freedom of trade, freedom of ideas and tolerance, there was nothing but a promising future for those who had landed in New Amsterdam.
The rise of this Jewish community parallels the rise of the republic. The histories of the Dutch nation and of Jewish society are remarkably similar. The Netherlands, a small country geographically, achieved greatness, while the Jewish community, small in number, also prospered and contributed significantly to the prosperity and growth of the country. In 1654, the arrival of the Peereboom and the St. Catrina reflected the accomplishments and ambitions of the “Golden Age.”
As early as 1654, the world was already learning that if a community had prosperous Jews in its midst, that the entire nation will benefit. The Dutch knew that the Jews were an important component of their economic success, and were particularly careful to ensure that they would be included in their colonies. Thus, the arrival of Sephardic Jews to the New World was not celebrated, but rather recognized because of the economic potential they brought with them.
Stuyvesant did not allow the Jews to construct a synagogue when they requested it. Thus it was determined later that the Congregation Shearith Israel had not been established by this group. He had an inherent suspicion and dislike of the Jews which was attributed to personal experiences.
What can be said about this first group of "23"? They came to the new land mostly for opportunity rather than to create a community. This would happen later at the turn of the century. They were expert traders and their value was recognized by the Dutch, who were enjoying their "Golden Age". They may not have lived long enough to see New Amsterdam surrender to the English. The Sephardic Jews must have been in South Carolina as early as 1695; I went to visit Beth Elohim a few years ago, a Sephardic synagogue built in 1812. The oldest synagogue that still exists is the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, built in 1763.