NEW YORK (AP) — They were “23 souls, big and small,” exhausted after surviving storms and pirates on the high seas.
Those five words in an early Dutch document describe America’s first Jews, who had fled persecution in Brazil. They were captured by buccaneers in the Caribbean before a French ship, the St. Catherine, rescued them and brought them to what is now New York.
The exact day the ship docked is not clear, but the document dated Sept. 7, 1654, mentions the 23 men, women and children who stepped off the St. Catherine, starting Jewish history in America.
In the coming months across the United States, which has about 6 million Jewish residents, the 350th anniversary of the refugees’ landing is being observed with lectures, exhibits and gatherings.
The Library of Congress is hosting an exhibit on Jewish life called “From Haven to Home.” The National Foundation for Jewish Culture will recognize Jewish talent behind about 100 movies, from the Marx brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
A New York-based organization called Celebrate 350 serves as a hub for hundreds of activities surrounding the anniversary.
The original tiny Jewish community was at the mercy of the Dutch, who ruled what was then New Amsterdam. The Dutch Reformed governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who had voiced his personal prejudice even against other Christian denominations, viewed the Jewish refugees as “very repugnant.” Still, the 23 demanded to stay. They had no choice.
“But the Jews had to be unobtrusive, and the governor said that if they got sick or were in need, they had to take care of their own,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, spiritual head of today’s Shearith Israel congregation, which was founded 350 years ago by those first Jewish Americans.
After decades of worship in private spaces, America’s founding Jewish community consecrated its first synagogue in 1730 on the site of an old mill in what today is Lower Manhattan.
Shearith Israel’s small Mill Street synagogue was for years North America’s sole Jewish house of worship, until a synagogue was erected in Savannah, Ga., then others in Philadelphia; Charleston, S.C.; and Newport, R.I., where the Touro Synagogue opened its doors in 1763. Touro is the oldest synagogue still standing in the United States.