Colonial Jewish New York

Lower Manhattan as seen from the FDR Drive

I spent one of my last evenings in NY before moving to London at the location where it all began. In 1730 Congregation Shearith Israel constructed the first ever synagogue in North America on what was then called Mill St. The synagogue and its successor (the second Mill St Synagogue – 1818) lasted until the 1830s. The synagogue included a school house, mikva, and home. Earlier in the day I went with Zachary Edinger, Shearith Israel Shamash, to the Shearith Israel archives in NJ to peruse their amazing collection for possible future study. There we discovered the synagogue’s 1729 Charter from King George the Second!

South William St.

Thanks to the generosity of my good friend Avi Steinberg, I visited Lower Manhattan to enjoy the kosher restaurant Reserve Cut. I parked in a lot on what is today South William St, formerly known as Mill St. As it turns out, the lot is located on the exact spot of the original synagogue. Unfortunately, there is no plaque to mark the significance of the location. However, the providence of the moment was not lost on me. I therefore took the opportunity to snap a few photos of the area before sunset so that I could share them with you.

Thankfully, there is a memorial to ‘America’s’ first Jews at the tip of Manhattan. A monument recalls the arrival of 23 Jews in 1654 to what was then New Amsterdam. One remnant from that Dutch period is Broad St. itself. It was ‘broad’ because down its middle they dug a canal, as the early Dutch inhabitants began to literally turn Manhattan into a new Amsterdam. However, when the British took control in 1664 they filled it in, though the broad street remains. At its end is Federal Hall where America’s first Congress met, and across the street from it is the New York Stock Exchange. At the intersection of Broad and Pearl, the restored colonial era Fraunces Tavern remains and can still be enjoyed. Even General George Washington dined there.

Broad St.

Fraunces Tavern

Mill St/South William St is a charming street with several nineteenth century neo-Dutch buildings on the block, giving it the feel of colonial times. A remnant of ‘Mill St’ persists in the alley off of South William St as it is still called Mill Lane. However, during colonial times it was actually dubbed ‘Jews Alley’ since Jews so often used it as a shortcut to synagogue! In the early 1800s most residents of NY began to migrate northward along with the city’s expansion and it’s newly laid street grid. However, until that time, Jewish New York (just a few hundred souls) was firmly rooted in what is today the Wall St section of Manhattan.


Those first Jews paved the way for the masses of Jews that arrived in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century. Migrations were celebrated by Shearith Israel member Emma Lazarus in her famous poem ‘New Colossus.’ The poem adorns the Statue of Liberty, just across from Lower Manhattan in New York harbor. Most of those newly arrived Jews settled in what is now called the Lower East Side, though by then Shearith Israel had moved even further ‘uptown.’ The Lower East Side, however, does have an important connection to Manhattan’s earliest Jews. It is the location of Shearith Israel’s first cemetery (at Chatham Square) which dates all the way back to the seventeenth century.

The Colonial Era Jews likely never imagined that New York would one day become one of the greatest ever centers of Jewish life. However, they planted seeds that have spouted for centuries. I, too, am nourished by their perseverance, and have grown as a result of my ‘encounter’ with them. While their synagogue no longer remains, their legacy surely does.


14 responses to “Colonial Jewish New York

  1. Perhaps you or your readers would be interested in reading “Transfer Day”, a historical novel about a Sephardic Jewish girl in St. Thomas as she faces a life of spinsterhood after most of her community picks up and leaves for Panama. Intrigue ensues when she discovers a German spy’s plot to take over the Danish West Indies for the Kaiser.

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