From 1654 to 1924, over five million Jews from Spain, Brazil, Poland, Germany, and Russia journeyed to what they considered the “Promised Land.” Historians have traditionally divided Jewish immigration to the Americas into three periods: Sephardic (ancestry to Spain and Portugal), German, and Eastern European (both are referred to as Ashkenazic).
Many of the rich traditions and cultural values that both Jewish and secular European Jews brought with them to the New World were cultivated and honed in their native countries.
These efforts are primarily the by-product of having learned to assimilate and acculturate in Christian Europe, the Muslim lands in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as in the Spanish and Portuguese New World dominions. Time and time again, Jews learned how to cultivate a distinctive cultural tradition, despite enduring cycles of intolerance and sometimes brutal repression.
Although each period is important to both American and Jewish history, the second and third waves of Jewish immigration to the United States are more significant. During these latter two phases, critical mass was achieved and the forces that drove them to emigrate were the most pronounced. These forces included famine, disease, poverty, revolution, pogroms, and economic dislocation.
Ultimately, it was this emigration of over three million Jews helps us better understand and appreciate the axiom that the United States is the land of “second chances.”
The Jewish diaspora from Germany and Eastern Europe joined the masses of no less than thirty-five million other immigrants who came to America seeking a better life. These masses came from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Russia in unprecedented numbers seeking refuge and new opportunities.
In the case of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, coming to America was largely the result of dislocation by economic disenfranchisement and anti-Semitic policies and pogroms. Like their European brethren, they also came to give their children better education and economic opportunities—the allure of the American Dream.
To the credit of those Jews who journeyed to America via Spain and Brazil, they managed to become a fully acculturated and active community. Their collective success should be studied in the context of a more complex and sophisticated picture.
The Sephardic Jews who left Spain in 1492 for Europe and from Brazil in 1654 for New Amsterdam set in motion a migration that would eventually lead to scores of synagogue-communities established in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport.
Historically speaking, the American Jewish experience was largely fragmented, isolated, and inconsequential until the great waves of migration, first from Central Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and then with large numbers from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jews maintained their own particular ethnic identity while becoming American and middle class for the most part. However, by immigrating to America they were given a broader spectrum of choices, that allowed them to take advantage of openness and opportunities. Jews chose to live in America as Jews and equal among gentiles. Ultimately, the Jewish experience in America serves as a powerful example of successful assimilation and acculturation by both German and Russian Jews. For the most part, Jews were able to maintain their own particular ethnic identity while becoming American and middle class.
The success of Jewish immigration to America between 1880 and 1924 is astounding. By the middle of the twentieth century, America became the largest homeland for Jews, and here they have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom, mobility, security, and prosperity. Moreover, their efforts to enter the mainstream of American life included embracing tenets of the American dream, they came to value education and used a high level of university training to enter into the most productive areas of American culture and economic life. In America, Jews were known as the “people of the book” taking advantage of obtaining a “good” education in order get ahead. It was considered the great leveler for it was one thing that Jewish Americans immediately embraced as a path to opportunity for themselves and their children. For many Jews, the importance of education was not only emphasized for its own sake but also as a means to an end.
Relative to other ethnic groups and native-born Americans they exceeded in all categories: college graduates, doctors, lawyers, university professors, publishers, editors, television producers, advertising executives, investment bankers, computer scientists, Nobel Peace prize winners, and millionaires. These efforts also include close associations with humanitarian and civil liberty causes. All told, the great Jewish emigration from central and eastern Europe profoundly affected the American ethnic landscape, and the great Jewish resettlement from 1820-1924 would become the exemplar of the immigrant success story.