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This Month in Jewish History: Tishrei

A warship 120 feet long touched down in the Caribbean. Its 28 guns lay silent in the warm night, its three square sails silhouetted against the crescent moon. Two years earlier, the Valck had been at the vanguard of the Dutch fleet in the very first battle of the Anglo-Dutch War. Now, it was at the forefront of a different kind of campaign: delivering nearly two dozen Jews from Brazil to salvation. 

Two months prior, on the 26th of January, 1654, Dutch Brazil had fallen to a Portuguese uprising. The Jews living in Recife, a port in northeastern Brazil, feared persecution. The commander of the Portuguese fleet, Francisco Barreto, gave them an ultimatum: leave within three months or convert to Christianity. Twenty-three of these Jews ‒ likely four pairs of married men and women, two widows, and 13 younger people ‒ boarded the Valck, one of 16 ships leaving in the wake of the capture of Dutch Brazil, and headed for the island of Martinique. However, they never made it; heavy winds blew the ship off course, forcing it to land in Jamaica.

The next few months are obscured historically by the fog of three and a half centuries. The 23 Jews may have departed from Jamaica near the end of April, perhaps still on the Valck, heading for Cuba. They may have left Jamaica directly for the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. By one account, they may have even been captured by Spanish pirates for some time. All that historians agree upon is that, one way or another, this group of Jews eventually sailed from the Caribbean to the port of New Amsterdam aboard the ship St. Catrina.

When they finally arrived in New Amsterdam sometime in the first week of September, they were immediately subjected to discrimination. St. Catrina’s captain, a Frenchman named Jacques de la Motthe, claimed the Jews had not paid for the journey, and the anti-semitic Director-General of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, barred them from serving in the military, forced them to pay an extra monthly tax, restricted their ability to buy property, and disallowed them from building a synagogue. 

On September 12 ‒ the day of Rosh Hashanah that year ‒ the congregation held its first-ever services, truly marking the beginning of a new year and a new era of Judaism.

However, the newly-arrived Jews persevered. With the assistance of Jacob Barsimson, an Ashkenazi Jew who had settled in the colony a month earlier, they founded the first congregation in what is now the United States: Congregation Shearith Israel. On September 12 ‒ the day of Rosh Hashanah that year ‒ the congregation held its first-ever services, truly marking the beginning of a new year and a new era of Judaism.

New Amsterdam was often an unforgiving residence, but the 23 Sepharadi Jews slowly made life better for themselves. One of them, Asser Levy, successfully campaigned against the monthly tax and ban from army service in 1655. Levy continued to fight for Jewish rights, appearing in court many times. He always represented himself, and almost always won. In 1656, he and Barsimson successfully lobbied for a Jewish cemetery. He also became the first Jewish landowner in America in 1661, became a licensed butcher and prominent trader, built a slaughterhouse in 1678, and became the owner of a tavern. 

Despite fleeing from persecution to persecution, encountering nothing but hardship along the way, this group of 23 Jews never gave up ‒ instead, they created their own new beginning, fighting for their rights every step of the way. On the day of 1 Tishrei 5415, these Jews not only reinvented themselves, but also initiated the entirety of American Jewish history.

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