Firsts in American Jewish Synagogue History
by Anna Shneyderman, Intern
There are many ways to be Jewish. You may be Jewish in the way you worship, Jewish in loving your bubbe’s matzo ball soup, Jewish in wearing your Star of David necklace or simply Jewish in philosophy and thought. But the one thing that unites every Jewish person, regardless of where they fall on this spectrum, is Jewish history. Where do we come from? How does our story begin, and more specifically how does it begin for Jewish people in America?
Here at the Museum at Eldridge Street you can explore the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America (1887). Many people think Eldridge Street is also the oldest synagogue in America. However, there are a number of other synagogues and congregations that predate us and have their own rich history. Here are some important synagogue firsts in America.
The oldest Jewish congregation in America is Shearith Israel (1654). These Sephardic founders trace their roots back to survivors of the Spanish Inquisition who found refuge in Dutch-occupied Brazil. But when the Portuguese took Brazil from the Dutch, they again had to escape persecution, and sailed to New Amsterdam (now New York!)—encountering a few pirates along the way.
The oldest synagogue in America which is still standing is Touro Synagogue (1759), also of Sephardic tradition. George Washington visited the members of this synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, on his tour to gain support for the Bill of Rights. The president of Touro Synagogue’s congregation, Moses Mendes Seixas, addressed Washington on the separation of church and state and religious freedom. “Washington’s response, quoting Seixas’ thoughts…a key policy statement of the new government in support of First Amendment rights.”
The oldest synagogue in continuous use in our own New York City is Central Synagogue (1872). Like the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Central Synagogue is also designated a National Historic Landmark. Though the gorgeous synagogue was devastated by an accidental fire in 1998, it was restored to its original grandeur in 2001.
What was the first Jewish congregation in your state? The first house of worship? Comment below!