Jewish Settlers in Colonial New York
The first known Jewish settler in New York was Jacob Bar-simon, a native of Holland. He arrived in New Amsterdam in August 1654. Bar-simon, a trader, was active in trying to get the legal rights for Jews in the new colony. The colony, today known as New York, was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1624.
Just 10 days after Barsimon's arrival, a boat carrying 23 Jewish men, women and children fleeing expulsion in Recife, Brazil docked in New Amsterdam. Brazil was governed by the Portuguese and enforced the Edict of Expulsion, AKA the Inquisition in the New World. Among the 23 original Jewish settlers was Asser Levy, a butcher by trade. In October 1660, Levy received a license to operate as a butcher – one of six in New Amsterdam, and the only kosher butcher among them.
On August 28, 1655, New Amsterdam decreed that the Jews would not be permitted to serve in the local defensive militia. The principal reason given “disgust and unwillingness” of Gentile members of the citizens bands to “to be fellow-soldiers. with the aforesaid nation and to be on guard with them in the same guard house.” Stuyvesant, equally opposed to Catholics and Jews settling in New Amsterdam, tried to have them banned. He was rebuffed, however, by the owners of the colony, the Dutch West India Company, some of whom were themselves Jews. They advised him, in a letter, to "Shut your eyes, at least [do] not force people's consciences, but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government."The prohibition on participating in guard duty may not sound like an onerous condition to live under, but the waiver came with a price tag: In lieu of service, Jews were required to pay a monthly fee to the town of 65 stivers (approximately 3 guilders). On November 5, Jacob Bar-shimon and Asser Levy, the two most prominent members of the tiny Jewish community of New Amsterdam, petitioned the council to permit them “to keep guard with other burghers, or to be free from the tax that others of their nation pay, as they must earn their living by manual labor.” That petition was denied and the council added the following insult “[A]s the petitioners are of the opinion that the result of this [the tax] will be injurious to them, consent is hereby given to them to depart whenever and whither it pleases them." It is not known precisely when the council of New Amsterdam was prevailed upon to reverse its position, but in April 1657, when Asser Levy was petitioning to be recognized as a burgher of the colony – a citizen with full economic and political rights -- he noted that, among his other attributes, he could say that he “keeps watch and ward” with the town’s other burghers. Levy’s initial application to be recognized as a burgher was also turned down. But the stubborn Levy appealed the decision, doing so with the support of wealthier Jewish merchants who had arrived more recently. They were able to cite promises made to them by "the Worshipful Lords" of the Dutch West India Co., Stuyvesant’s employers. The director general got the hint, and the initial rejection was reversed.
Luis Moses Gomez arrived in the New World in 1669. He opened a business in lower Manhattan selling general merchandise, but soon became involved in the wheat trade. Gomez purchased thousands of acres along the Hudson north of Newburgh. His house is the oldest Jewish dwelling in the Hudson Valley, The Gomez House is listed on the National Historic Register and is open as a museum. .
Considerable numbers of Jewish settlers begin to arrive in Ulster County with the first great wave of immigration in the 1840's. These were Jews primarily from Germany. The second great wave came in the 1890's from the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland, Lithuania, Russia...They fled extreme persecution, pogroms and poverty in their homelands. Many were denied the right to own land and some tried their hand at being farmers. Hundreds of Jewish farms dotted Sullivan and Ulster counties by 1920. Most struggled and many began to take in summer boarders. The first in the area was John Gerson who in 1899 advertised his boardinghouse in Rock Hill followed Jewish faith and customs.
They established the many little synagogues throughout the Catskills and surrounding valleys.
The architecture of these synagogue buildings is typical of the Polish style with the bimah in the center and a balcony for the women. The Kerhonkson Synagogue is a well preserved example of these rural shuls. Several others are listed on our Historic Synagogues and Auto Tour pages.
More settlers came in the years following the Holocaust in Europe. During this time, egg production was profitable and many tried their hand at this. Several of the old chicken coops can be seen all around the valley , Struggling with marginally successful farms, many started summer boarding-houses or became shopkeepers.. Soon the famous resorts of the
Borscht Belt would follow and Jewish entrepreneurs would make the Catskill region world famous..