Pirates of Providence

The beginnings of a Jewish community in the United States of America

Every American schoolboy knows that the first European settlement in America was in 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia and that the Pilgrim Fathers settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. What is not so commonly known is that another important settlement took place a short time later in New Amsterdam in 1654. It involved 23 people and was the first Jewish settlement in America, in a town later to be known as New York.

Back in 1478, the infamous Spanish Inquisition was ordering Spanish Jews to convert to Christ or die. Those who lived double lives, outwardly converting yet retaining their Jewishness, were called Marranos or ‘pigs’. The Inquisition didn’t succeed in exterminating the Jewish community so forced expulsion was the next option. In 1492, 150,000 Jews were forced to leave Spain.

Some found a safer haven in Holland which was becoming increasingly influenced by the Reformation and thereby less anti-Semitic than other parts of Europe. Holland was involved in colonizing the New World through maritime trade and a small Dutch Jewish community settled in Recife, Brazil. In 1654, the Portuguese reclaimed Recife from the Dutch. Life once again became difficult for the Jews there and they were forcibly sent back to Holland.

One of the ships carrying these Jews, the Saint Catherine, was pirated and its occupants left to die on the open sea but the ship limped on to harbour in New Amsterdam. There were 23 Jews on board and these men, women, and children formed the first Jewish community in America. New Amsterdam would later come to be known as New York, with a 21st century Jewish population of two million.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries life remained challenging for Jews in America. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews lived together in what was basically a Christian country which challenged them to assimilate. They began to enjoy greater freedoms than they had in Europe and some were influential in shaping government policies.

The Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1787, gave Jewish people religious privileges federally but this didn’t mean everything was alright for them at state level. It wasn’t until 1826 that a ‘Jew Bill’ was passed in Maryland, a strongly Catholic State at that time, granting equality to ‘the sect of people professing the Jewish religion’. Colonial Virginia had strong links with the Church of England and you could not be a citizen in Virginia unless you took an oath of faith in the Church and in Jesus Christ. It took Thomas Jefferson to challenge the current Church/State relationship, which at that time prevented a Jew from owning land or having a vote. In 1791, the First Amendment granted religious freedom through the separation of Church and State.

Fast forward to 21st century and you find the United States being home to around five million Jewish people, which accounts for 42% of the world’s Jewish population. This small 2% of the population influence life in the USA way beyond their numbers. In the twentieth century, 37% of all US Nobel Prize Winners, were Jewish. Enter the world of US politics and the names of Kissinger, Albright, Fleischer and Chertoff are all in there. Think cinema and Columbia, Disney and 20th Century Fox come to mind. Name the people behind these names and you discover they are Jewish: Jack and Harry Cohn, Michael Eisner, William Fox and Joseph Schenk. Think about actors and directors and you find Mel Brooks, Stephen Spielberg, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers, Tony Curtis, Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Wilder, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler to name a handful. And for those brought up in the 60s and 70s, remember that Spock is Jewish and so is Fonzie! The music industry is also teeming with Jewish excellence in Bacharach, Gershwin, Sedaka, Dylan, Manilow, Streisand, Diamond and Midler. Dig a little deeper and you will find that even Elvis’s great-great-grandmother was Jewish!

This is largely the result of the Pirates of Providence bringing a ship of 23 Jewish people to New Amsterdam. Little did they know the Sovereign Lord would use them in influencing a nation. That same providence also brought the Pilgrim Fathers whose theology and philosophy have also had a major influence on the land of the free. Despite current problems, the USA still houses 25% of the world’s evangelicals and sends out 50% of the world’s missionaries. (Patrick Johnstone – Operation World)

There is a strong sense in the USA of Christians wanting to ‘bless Israel’ but there is a failure to appreciate that Israel is alive and well and living in America. It is not a country ‘over there’ but a people who are here! Perhaps it might be necessary for Divine Providence to pirate a ship and limp us into harbour again. O Church in America arise … and bring the gospel to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile. Please God, send more pirates!

This article first appeared in the Autumn Herald 2013

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