19 May 2008

Virginia: Early Jewish settlement

Here's a fascinating history of early Jewish settlement in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other sections cover business and commerce, Jefferson and the Jews, community establishment, religious institutions, the Levys at Monticello and other sections.

Thanks to researchers in the South, documentation of Jewish history in this region has increased and covers large port cities to rural towns, reflecting the diversity of Jewish immigrants in America.

Charlottesville's history reflects colonial-era Sephardic Jews and 19th century immigrants from Germany and then from Lithuania and Belarus. According to the website, it's important to note that the town was the home of Thomas Jefferson and that the University of Virgina, which he established, was the first American higher education institute that did not impose or require a particular theology of students or faculty.

"To Seek the Peace of the City" was produced in 1994 to spotlight 19th and early 20th century Jewish life in Charlottesville and the University. It expanded on a 1993 exhibit, "Jewish Life at Mr. Jefferson's University," which was part of the school's commemoration of Jefferson's 250th birthday.

Though few in number, Jews were a part of the European colonization of Virginia. Expelled from Spain in the very year that Columbus encountered America, they tried to re-establish their communities in northern and central Europe, North Africa, Palestine, Turkey and the city-states of Italy. These Spanish and Portuguese Jews, called the Sephardim, were among the first to settle the Americas, hoping to find places where they could maintain their distinctive Jewish traditions. By the 1640s Sephardic Jews had established trade networks connecting New York, Charleston, Newport, Philadephia, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Many quickly became prominent and respected professionals.

Ashkenazic Jews, with a style of worship typical of the Germanies and Russia, also sought the New World as a refuge. During the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, Jews were living as a barely tolerated minority in Germany, Austria, and Poland, and somewhat less precariously in Holland and Italy. Eager to find a safe foothold in the New World, Jews participated in the exploration and settlement of the Atlantic coast of the Americas. A Jewish metallurgist from Prague, Joachim Gaunse (or Jacob Gans), was in Virginia as early as 1585 as part of the first English attempt to settle North America at Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Colony. Early Sephardic settlers of Virginia included Dr. John de Sequeyra, a specialist in the treatment of the mentally ill, who arrived in Williamsburg in 1745; in his role as a general practitioner, he was the physician of George Washington's stepdaughter Martha Parke Custis. Also prominent were members of the aristocratic Cardozo and Seixas families. 4

On the eve of the American Revolution there were still just a handful of Jews in Virginia, mainly in Richmond. Jacob Cohen (from Oberdorf, Germany) and Isaiah Isaacs (from Frankfort-am-Main, via England) became business partners who sold merchandise and real estate. They helped to finance Daniel Boone's surveys of Kentucky, were ardent patriots, and though they were slaveowners they both freed their slaves in their wills. In addition to their commercial ventures, both were committed to their religion; Isaacs signed all his deeds in Hebrew. He was a founder of Beth Shalome, Richmond's first synagogue, in 1789, and also helped to fund the first Jewish cemetery, on Richmond's Shockoe Hill. He was a man of prominence, elected to Richmond's Common Hall (forerunner of the City Council), just two years after the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom made it possible for a Jew to hold elective office. He later moved to Charlottesville and died there in 1806.

Read more of this section here.
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Thomas Jefferson has Jewish ancestry due to the DNA testing and the matches of the two Moroccan Jews, Kurdish Jew, and an Egyptian.

    Del Rubio Triplets are related to Thomas Jefferson's sister and while three is the favorite number and they have matches to 2 Moroccans and 1 Kurd of Jewish descent and the total of 3 gentleman of Jewish descent.