Jewish immigration to America

Jewish immigration to America

As the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, Save Ellis Island is reflecting on Jewish immigration to America. When New York was still New Amsterdam there was a small population of Jews living on the island of Manhattan. During the first half of the 19th century they were joined by a wave of German Jews who came to America. By 1877 the American Jewish Yearbook records the presence of over 200,000 Jews in the United States.

image003In 1881, the decade prior to the opening of Ellis Island, the mass migration of Jews to America began. The assassination of Russian Tsar Alexendar II in 1881 was widely blamed on the Jews. A series of pogroms (a Russian word meaning to wreak havoc) started in Elizavetgrad, now located in modern Ukraine. The pogroms spread across southern Russia and Ukraine – Jewish owned stores and businesses were attacked and their property was destroyed.

Tsar Alexander III enacted a series of anti-Semitic laws in 1882, known as the “May Laws.” These laws restricted where Jews could settle, forbade non-Jews from issuing mortgages to Jews, and prohibited Jews from conducting business on Sundays. With little alternative, tens of thousands of Russian Jews joined by Jews from Eastern European countries controlled by Russia, made their way to America. Between 1881 and 1910 the American Jewish Yearbook estimates that over 1.5 million Jews had come to America, of those more than 70% came from Russia.

immigrants looking at the NY skyline JRJust prior to the official 1892 opening of Ellis Island, President Benjamin Harrison sent a five-man commission to travel to Europe to explore the reasons for the mass migration of Europeans to the United States. Among the members of the commission was future Commissioner of Immigration Colonel John B. Weber who traveled to Russia to get a first-hand understanding of Jewish immigration from Russia. According to Vincent Cannato’s American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, “Weber was haunted by nightmares of the tragic Jewish figures he encountered…”. Weber argued that Russian Jews were immigrating to the United States because of ethnic and religious persecution. In 1892 Ellis Island opened its doors to millions of immigrants and the issue of Jewish immigration would be debated for the next three decades.

ellis island dining hallAs millions of desperate and impoverished Jews fled Europe, numerous aid societies were established in America to assist the newcomers starting with their arrival at Ellis Island. In 1891 the Baron de Hirsch Fund was established to provide aid to Jewish immigrants. Through the Fund, agents of the United Hebrew Charities of New York and the Council of Jewish women helped ease the passage of Jewish immigrants through Ellis Island. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded in 1881 to assist Jews leaving Russia and Eastern Europe, started a bureau on Ellis Island in 1904. They provided translation assistance, guided immigrants through medical screenings, argued before the Boards of Special Inquiry to prevent deportations, obtained bonds to guarantee employment status, lent the $25 landing fee, and provided reduced rate railroad tickets. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society even worked to have a Kosher kitchen installed on Ellis Island.

image004Outbreaks of ferocious anti-Semitism coincided with increased numbers of Jewish immigrants processed at Ellis Island. Violence in Russia between the years 1903 and 1908 is reflected in the peak year of Ellis Island immigration – 1907. The American Jewish Yearbook reported that between September 1, 1906 and June 30, 1908, 131,910 Jews came to America. The majority came through Ellis Island.

While other religious and ethnic groups spread throughout the United States, the majority of Jewish immigrants stayed in New York City initially settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The New York Daily Tribune reported in 1893, “Whatever one may think of the Hebrew question in general, it is impossible for the student of current history to deny that it is a vital one in New York today.” A percentage of other immigrant groups returned to their country of origin yet virtually no Jews returned to Europe. By 1924, the year that the National Origins Act was passed effectively curtailing the end of mass immigration, the Jewish population of New York was over 1.7 million. With a total population of 3.6 million nationwide, almost one-half of Jews had settled in New York.

Market Day in Jewish Quarter of East Side NY 1912

The impact of Jewish culture on New York is undeniable. Thousands worked in the garment district, leading New York to become a world capital of fashion. Jewish food, particularly through widely popular delicatessens, became synonymous with New York – pastrami on rye is a staple. Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant to New York is just one example of the many Jews who contributed to American culture. He wrote such American classics as “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.”

image002Save Ellis Island continues to preserve the story of the great migration of Jews to America. Our Hard Hat Tours allow visitors to walk the corridors of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex, where thousands of Jews were treated before settling in the United States.

Joining Save Ellis Island in telling the story of Jewish immigration is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Museum at Eldridge Street. As the holidays bring about a time of remembrance and reflection, we encourage you to explore the history of Jewish people in America at Save Ellis Island’s Hard Hat Tours, available daily, and at these wonderful organizations.

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