A History of the American Jewish Community
By Steve Israel
Background and History
The American Jewish community has developed gradually over recent centuries and now comprises hundreds of communities that vary in size and characteristics.
The United States of America was the destination of first choice of many oppressed and persecuted peoples around the world, including the Jews. Many significant historical events that took place elsewhere in the world in the past two hundred years or so, and which impacted on Jews living in different countries, consequently also left their mark on American Jewry and on the waves of emigration that reached its shores.
The earliest Jews in America were almost entirely Sephardi in origin (i.e. from Spain and Portugal), appearing with the early generations of European colonization of North America. They settled mostly in the ports and towns of the eastern seaboard; by the time of the Revolution, in 1776, they numbered between 1,500 and 2,500 souls. A large wave of about 200,000 immigrants arrived between the 1820s and the 1870s, bringing the community to 280,000. Commonly called ‘the German wave,’ it in fact comprised Ashkenazi immigrants from all over Central Europe. They also started off on the East Coast, but soon began to penetrate westwards in search of economic opportunities.
The 1880s mark the beginning of what was to become the dominant wave in the community: the huge Eastern European immigration that would bring in millions over a few decades. By the time the United States closed down its open immigration policies in the mid-1920s, there were over 3.5 million Jews in the country.
This community was further augmented, amidst tremendous difficulties and great controversy, by many tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in the years immediately following World War II.
More recent groups of Jewish immigrants include some 250,000 Israeli Jews who have left Israel since the 1970s. Two other identifiable groups are the former Soviet Jews, whose estimated numbers vary from 150,000 to more than double that figure, and some 30,000 Iranian Jews who arrived during the nineties, after the fall of the Shah. Many other Jewish groups and communities, from places as diverse as Syria, Latin America and South Africa, can be found among the rich mosaic that makes up American Jewry today.
Jews can be found all over the United States. Traditionally, for geographical reasons, most have established themselves in the east, and especially in New York, which is by far the largest ‘Jewish city’ in the world. Over recent decades, Jews have generally moved South and West: today, California and Florida have each accumulated very large communities. In addition, increasing numbers of Jews have moved out of the cities and into the suburbs, or even further out, causing an unprecedented dispersal of the population.
Significant historical factors that impacted on the positive or negative migration of Jews to the USA
As mentioned previously, the United States of America was the destination of first choice of many oppressed and persecuted peoples around the world, including the Jews. Many significant historical events that took place elsewhere in the world in the past two hundred years or so, and which impacted on Jews living in different countries, consequently also left their mark on American Jewry.
The historical, political and economic events were the primary significant factors in Jewish emigration to the United States. For example:
- The Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of Jews from Spain at the end of the 15th century created Jewish migration.
- Repression and counter-revolution in mid-19th century Europe were also a significant factor in Jewish migration. During this period, there were many liberal, democratic and nationalist revolutions, most of which failed or succeeded in achieving only minimal change. Many Jews supported these revolutions and even took part in thee various movements; many of them subsequently decided to leave Europe, frustrated and despondent at this failure and with the increase in Antisemitism.
20th century events that impacted on Jewish emigration to the USA were:
- The Shoah (Holocaust);
- The collapse of the USSR;
- Anarchy in Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and ascent to power (1979). The revolution brought down the Shah of Iran and established an extremist Islamic regime, causing the Jewish community to flee the country, almost entirely to the USA.
Emigration from the United States of America is uni-directionally focused – towards Israel. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, about 75,000 American Jews have come on Aliyah to Israel. However, as has been mentioned, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have also made their way to the USA over the years, and live there to this day.
Economic Profile, Occupations and Professions
In the nineteenth century, until the large-scale Eastern European immigration, most Jews engaged in the occupations of small-scale trade, such as peddlers or small shopkeepers, before slowly working up the economic scale within the same sector. The late-nineteenth century immigrants, however, gravitated toward the slums and the sweatshops of the big cities, mainly becoming proletarianized in the process.
The next generation started moving in one of the two classic economic directions of the second and third generation – business, or the professions. Jews have continued in these directions - and many others - over the last thirty or forty years. Large numbers of Jews have moved towards academia; others have gravitated towards communications and the arts, as newspaper journalists, or in television, or film.
The American Jewish community today is considered, on the whole, prosperous and well established, but there is a wide range of incomes and there are significant pockets of poverty and distress, especially in the older generation and among new immigrants.
Religious Orientation: Movements and Streams of Judaism
The religious orientation of the American Jewish community is highly diversified, and includes the three main movements or streams of modern Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, as well as other major movements and organized forms of Judaism.
The two dominant forms of Judaism before the mass immigration of the 1880s and 1890s were Reform and Conservative Judaism. The Eastern European immigration around the turn of the 20th century created the basis for the rise of a strong Orthodox stream, which was reinforced by immigration after the Shoah.
Today, the three main streams of Judaism co-exist in the United States, while Modern Orthodoxy has experienced a considerable revival in recent years, seeking to integrate complete commitment to the Torah and mitzvot with full integration into non-Jewish society. There has been a rise in synagogue membership in general, over the past few years, but the community is also marked by a parallel trend, where many Jews who define themselves as "cultural" or "secular" Jews feel alienated from the synagogue-centered Jewish environment.
In their search for spiritual meaning, many Jews feel that the established streams do not offer suitable solutions to these dilemmas, and this has led to the creation of alternative frameworks, some of which are Jewish – some not.
Education & Culture
The American Jewish community offers a tremendous range of options for Jewish education and culture, marked by the differences between the streams of Judaism and the particular characteristics of each community.
There are currently over 350 Jewish day schools in America, most of which are elementary, providing education for about 29% of Jewish children in the United States. Most of these are Orthodox (perhaps 80%), but the trend towards Jewish day schools has been growing much stronger in the other streams, as well as leading to the opening of over 100 unaffiliated community Jewish day schools.
In addition to formal education, Jewish camps of different kinds have flourished in America for many decades, some of which have a connection to the Jewish Agency for Israel. There are also a large number of Jewish youth movements and youth organizations, affiliated to the various streams of Judaism and other Jewish adult organizations.
The two major ‘Jewish’ institutions of tertiary education are Brandeis University and Yeshiva University - as well as a number of growing colleges, such as the University of Judaism, Hebrew College… There are also rabbinical and educational centers connected with each main Jewish stream. It is also worth noting that many non-Jewish universities have employed scholars to deal with aspects of Jewish history, literature and culture. This partly reflects - and perhaps partly causes – the increased popularity of Jewish studies among many young Jews. Another factor that we should single out is the increasing number of Orthodox girls and women seeking a deep Jewish education, and the establishment of separate Jewish women's colleges for this purpose.
Jewish cultural life has a wide scope and offers many opportunities. Arts festivals of different kinds (films, literature and music) are doing well and new initiatives in this field are common. Museums (not only about the Holocaust) are becoming a much more prominent feature of Jewish communities, and there are many initiatives to turn such places into educational and cultural attractions. Jews are very evident in American culture and the general community has recognized a substantial number of Jewish writers, over the years. In the field of entertainment, one can mention figures like Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but two of the many.
Welfare & Social Problems
Generally speaking, the American Jewish community is prosperous, but there are pockets of genuine poverty within it. Of the main groups affected, one is that of Jews from the former USSR, these constituting the most recent immigrant group, still in the throes of economic integration in the USA. Another is that of the haredi Jews, and one more prominent group is that of single mothers.
The main Jewish agency dealing with poverty and welfare is the Jewish
Welfare Board, founded in 1917. Significantly perhaps, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, founded three years earlier and dedicated to helping needy Jews all over the world, was the first American Jewish institution that cut across all denominational boundaries in that country and united American Jewry.
A large number of Jewish agencies deal with social problems, such as: drug abuse; alcoholism; AIDS; homelessness; domestic violence and abusive families. Indeed, the number of these organizations has risen in recent years along with increased recognition that these problems do exist within the Jewish community, too.
The rate of intermarriage (or outmarriage) in the USA today is higher than ever before, at approximately 54%, and even beyond this, especially on the West Coast and in small communities.
Within Orthodox circles, the problem of intermarriage has always figured high on the communal agenda, and continue to do so. In contrast, some of the non-Orthodox religious movements consider it an inevitable phenomenon in an open society, and address it far more tolerantly, seeking to bring the non-Jewish partner into a positive relationship with Judaism. Intermarriage workshops are common throughout the community.
There is no question that intermarriage has always existed within the American Jewish community. The lure of the outside world has proved extremely strong and been coupled with the tenacious melting-pot myth that has been active up to the last generation. On the other hand, this was overtaken by the multi-culturalism ideal, towards the end of the second millennium, with an attendant legitimization of ethnic pride. This has made conservation of a separate identity more acceptable to young Jews, in their search to integrate their Judaism with modernity.
Physical Security & Antisemitism
In the immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the last century there was plenty of local rivalry between different national groups who used negative stereotyping, as part of their arsenal against other groups. Anti-Jewish feeling certainly existed, but no more, perhaps, than anti-Irish or anti-Italian feeling.
The main period of anti-Jewish feeling was during the inter-war period and in the years immediately following the Second World War. During this era, the United States closed the doors of many of its clubs and other institutions to Jews, and whispering campaigns about the Jews were common. This rarely resulted in full-fledged violence, however.
In recent decades, the amount of anti-Jewish feeling in official America has fallen away and, to a large extent, anti-Semitic rhetoric has been restricted to extreme-right fringe groups. The one community in which there has been continual tension over the last generation is the black community, related to socio-economic tensions.
With the more recent outbreak of Moslem fundamentalist terror against the West, and Israel’s becoming a focal point - or even posited as a cause - of tension with the West, it remains to be seen whether this will have any real repercussions on the local Jewish community. There are a number of Jewish thinkers and writers who have talked of a new kind of anti-Semitism rising in the Moslem world, against all Jews. Whatever the truth of the charge, it is notable that the Jews of America are not talking about the anti-Semitism within, but of the anti-Semitism without. In America, it seems they may be scared of terror attacks as Americans, but they are not noticeably scared of terror attacks as Jews.
The successful integration of American Jews into the life of the nation was borne out by the near election of an American Jew - and an observant one, at that - as Vice-President of the U.S.A. His nomination, which caused enormous excitement among American Jews, and the fact that it was accepted on all sides of the political spectrum as a valid political move, say a great deal about the strength of the Jews in American political culture.
Summing up, it seems true to say that, of all the Diaspora communities, the American community has been blessed with less hostility and more tranquility than just about all others.
The Community Agenda
The Jewish community is grappling with a number of major issues:
Assimilation and intermarriage:
The increasing rate of intermarriage and/or outmarriage poses serious questions about the long-term viability and continuity of the community. It indicates that nucleus of committed Jews, whose Jewish identity is at the core of their persona, is clearly decreasing.
Internal conflict and tensions:
The problem of acrimonious relations between the different streams of Jewry is particularly acute in America. Streams dismiss and de-legitimize each other, which creates immense tension and, occasionally, dissociation, between some of these Jewish organizations.
During the twentieth century, the American Jewish community largely drew together around certain causes: helping oppressed Jews; aiding immigration and integration, in the early years of the century;
protesting the Holocaust; supporting the establishment of the Jewish state in mid-century; supporting the young State of Israel; rallying for the freedom of Soviet Jews, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews - and aiding their integration in the free world, or in Israel.
Those times have largely passed, however: today, American Jewry is clearly in need of a cause capable of unifying most of the community on behalf of a greater, common need.
The Future of the American Jewish Community
It is difficult to hypothesize about the future of the American Jewish community:
- It seems likely that the community will shrink demographically, as many of the more marginalized elements fall by the wayside, without any meaningful subjective (or objective) connection to Jews, or Judaism.
- It is also quite possible, however, that a strengthened center of more knowledgeable Jews of all denominations may constitute a new basis for the collective.
- In this smaller, but more knowledgeable group, it is fair to predict that women will play a larger role than in the past, empowered with knowledge that will enable them to play new roles in the public Jewish sphere.
- It seems unlikely, however, that significant numbers of American Jews will be attracted towards Aliyah to Israel, although one cannot discount the possibility of more Israeli Jews’ moving to America.
- It is impossible to predict whether Jews from other countries will also emigrate to America. Changes in the situation of other Jewish communities around the world – in Argentina for example – will almost inevitably lead to changes in the size of the American community, if and where members of such communities prefer emigration to America, over Aliyah to Israel.
In the foreseeable future, the United States and Israel are likely to remain the primary focuses of life and choice of home for Jews from other Jewish communities around the world; the American Jewish community will therefore retain its status as the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora.
Connecting to Israel
In the years following the Shoah, the United States' Jewish community was deeply involved in the struggle to establish the Jewish state, and in the early years of the State, it gave Israel both moral and financial support. The Six Day War created enormous pride in the young state and generated continued support for Israel.
From the early 1970s onwards, Israeli political discourse and dissent began to filter into the US, and the community became split between right and left, with each side criticizing the Israeli government's policy when it was not to their taste. The outcome has been that many of the young generation who grew up during the 1970s tend to take Israel's existence for granted, on the one hand, while no longer being unconditionally supportive of all that Israel stands for, on the other. This is reflected in lower financial and other contributions to Israel donated by the children of those people who gave unstintingly in the pre-state and early state period.
In addition, those young American Jewish leaders who are involved in intensive contact with Israel are more critical towards many aspects of Israeli society. The fact that non-Orthodox Judaism goes unrecognized in Israel is a major point of tension between much of the current leadership of U.S. Jewry and Israel. Many involved American Jews feel the desire and the need to be seen as partners with Israeli leaders in the shaping of a future for Israel as a Jewish state.
It is important to point out that only about 35% of American Jews have visited Israel, while the remainder know Israel only through media coverage and what they hear from other members of the Jewish community. Another significant point is that 75,000 American Jews have gone on Aliyah to Israel since the establishment of the State, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis have left Israel for the United States.
The American Jewish Community's Contribution to the United States of America
The US Jewish community has made an enormous contribution to the country, well over and above their relatively limited numbers. The Jewish community has provided a large percentage of educated and skilled personell to major sectors of American society, and in recent years, Jews have played key roles in American industry and economy, academia and culture.
Many key figures in American literature have been Jewish. Names such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are familiar to all educated Americans. The film industry was also transformed in the early to mid twentieth century by a whole host of immigrant Jews who became key figures and studio owners in Hollywood, with names like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg following in their footsteps. Popular music would not have been what it is today, without the contributions of Jewish artistes like Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Carole King, who made their mark on the contemporary music scene, and others who continue to innovate in this field.
As this is such a vast field to cover it would be impossible to offer a comprehensive guide to all the issues and Jewish communities in the USA, so references have been limited to a few major websites.
United Jewish Communities/Jewish Federations www.ujc.org
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations www.conferenceofpresidents.org/
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee www.jdc.org
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society www.hias.org
Major Jewish Organizations www.conferenceofpresidents.org/content.asp?id=55
American Jewish Archives www.americanjewisharchives.org/
American Jewish Historical Society www.ajhs.org/
Center for Jewish History www.cjh.org/
Jewish American Hall of Fame www.amuseum.org/jahf/
National Museum of American Jewish History www.nmajh.org
American Jewish Committee www.ajc.org
Anti-Defamation League www.adl.org
Simon Wiesenthal Center www.wiesenthal.com
SWC-Museum of Tolerance www.museumoftolerance.com
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum www.ushmm.org/
World Jewish Congress www.worldjewishcongress.org
Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education www.caje.org
Jewish Community Centers Association www.jcca.org/
Jewish Community Day School Network www.ravsak.org/home/
Jewish Education Service of North America www.jesna.org
American Israel Public Affairs Committee www.aipac.org
Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael www.jnf.org
American Jewish University www.ajula.edu
Brandeis University www.brandeis.edu
Hebrew College www.hebrewcollege.edu
Hebrew Union College www.huc.edu
Jewish Theological Seminary of America www.jtsa.edu
Yeshiva University www.yu.edu
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation www.jrf.org/
Orthodox Union www.ou.org
Reform Judaism www.rj.org
Society for Humanistic Judaism www.shj.org/
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism www.uscj.org/