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From Inquisition to Freedom

Early American Jews were unremarkable in many ways. They looked and behaved like other colonists: they wore the same clothes, lived in the same types of homes, worried about their children and worked to earn a living, just like other colonists. Their religion and their history were the only differences. Their beliefs had gotten them expelled from England in 1290 and cast out from Spain in 1492. The forced conversions, torture and expulsions of the Inquisition sometimes caused them to change their names and hide their religion, but never to forget who they were. Some fled from Catholic Europe to North Africa, Turkey, the Kingdom of Poland, and Protestant Europe including Slovakia, the German states and Scandinavia, making their homes in Copenhagen or Hamburg. More frequently, Spanish and Portuguese Jews sought refuge in Holland and created a home for themselves in Amsterdam. The Jewish community thrived there; their success allowed them to migrate to Brazil, Suriname, Jamaica and Curacao, where they built synagogues and purchased ground for cemeteries. And in 1654, these Jews came to Nieu Amsterdam (later New York) in the New World.

Their names were Spanish and Portuguese: Abram De Lucena, David Israel, Moses Ambrasias, Abram De La Simon, Salvator D'Andrada, Joseph De Costa, David Fiera, Jacob Barsunson, Jacob C. Henrique, Isaac Mesa and Isaac Levy. Their outlook was cosmopolitan and their trading interests became widespread and varied – and vital to the economy of the colonies. Soon more Jews arrived from Europe and the Caribbean and the Jewish community expanded to Newport, Charleston, Savannah and Philadelphia, always seeking the freedom to practice their religion and their professions. It wasn’t always easy; the Christian community mistrusted the Jews and frequently denied them basic rights of citizenship. New York was one place where Jews were given more latitude: under the provisional transfer to England of New Netherland negotiated by Peter Stuyvesant and his council in 1665, New Netherlanders under future English jurisdiction “shall keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion.” As the Jewish community grew and prospered, they contributed to the welfare of New York and the other cities in which they lived: creating jobs, supporting the prevailing government and, when the time came, frequently joining with the forces of revolution.

The Spanish Jews, the “Sephardim”, were joined by those from other parts of Europe: Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Russia. These “Ashkenazim” used different prayer books and conducted their worship services differently from the Sephardim, but to the Christian community, the distinction did not matter. All Jews were subject to discriminatory rules for trade and citizenship. But in America, it was sometimes possible to challenge discrimination. Little by little, in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York, Jews won the right to be naturalized, to trade freely and to worship publicly. They were able to serve in the military and to provide funds for the infant country. They were Patriots and Loyalists, Whigs and Tories, rich and poor. They were, in short, just like other Americans.

Still, some individuals stand out for their achievements in American and in Jewish history. The thirteen whose lives are commemorated in Patriots Park (one from each colony) and nine others were extraordinary in their own time and in ours. More portraits and biographies of early American Jews can be seen in the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Database of Early American Jewish Portraits, hosted by the American Jewish Historical Society.

Early Jews Honored in Patriots Park

Solomon Bush (1753-1795) — Delaware

Lieutenant-Colonel Solomon Bush was the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Continental Army, a distinguished public servant, and a leader of the Masons in Pennsylvania. Born Oct 13, 1753, he was the son of Mathias Bush and Tabitha Mears. He joined the Pennsylvania Militia in 1776 and by July of 1777, he was appointed Deputy Adjutant General of the Militia of the State of Pennsylvania. According to a letter of commendation passed by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania in 1779,

…it appears that Major Bush has, on many occasions, distinguished himself in the public service, especially in the winter of 1776, when the service was critical and hazardous . . . in the month of September, 1777, acting as Deputy Adjutant General, he was dangerously wounded in a skirmish between the militia and the advance of the British Army, his thigh being broken and he brought off with great difficulty; that being carried to his father's house, on Chestnut Hill, and incapable of being moved, he fell into the hands of the British Army, when it moved up to Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania in December, 1777 and was imprisoned. Colonel Bush was ultimately released in exchange for British prisoners held by the Continental forces.

Bush was an active Mason and went to London in November 1788 on business for the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge. From there he repeatedly petitioned Washington for a diplomatic post, but was unsuccessful, despite being highly recommended by others close to Washington. Although he apparently had no formal medical training, Bush had evidently picked up enough medical knowledge, perhaps during the time he spent in London, to be generally referred to as Dr. Bush. In 1791, he married Nancy Ann Marshall, most likely in Philadelphia. He died in 1795 and is buried in the Friends Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

Notable Early American Jews

Franks served during the American Revolution and was wounded in the battle of Long Island. He married Mary Davidson, a practicing Christian and had himself become Christian. Franks was a successful financial broker. His Germantown home served as a substitute White House for Washington during the yellow fever epidemic in 1783.

Franks served during the American Revolution and was wounded in the battle of Long Island. He married Mary Davidson, a practicing Christian and had himself become Christian. Franks was a successful financial broker. His Germantown home served as a substitute White House for Washington during the yellow fever epidemic in 1783.

Franks served during the American Revolution and was wounded in the battle of Long Island. He married Mary Davidson, a practicing Christian and had himself become Christian. Franks was a successful financial broker. His Germantown home served as a substitute White House for Washington during the yellow fever epidemic in 1783.

Franks served during the American Revolution and was wounded in the battle of Long Island. He married Mary Davidson, a practicing Christian and had himself become Christian. Franks was a successful financial broker. His Germantown home served as a substitute White House for Washington during the yellow fever epidemic in 1783.