Faith & Values
One day in September 1654, 23 Jews disembarked a ship in New Amsterdam — now called New York. The previous May, they had fled Recife, Brazil, fearing persecution from the Portuguese, who had recently conquered the country and who had a long history of brutal anti-Semitism.
Sixteen ships carried Recife’s Jews toward their native Holland but only 15 arrived. One had become separated from the others in a storm and then took a long, circuitous route through the Caribbean before arriving in Manhattan.
According to some accounts, the ship had been captured by pirates along the way. The brigands would have sold the passengers as slaves had not a passing French ship come to the rescue in the nick of time.
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The group that arrived that day — a bedraggled cluster of four married couples, two widows and 13 children — was the first group of Jewish settlers in this country. When they arrived, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam tried to have them expelled. Fortunately, his efforts failed.
Soon, more Jews arrived. They built homes, opened businesses, organized local synagogues, and wove themselves into the fabric of American life. Many fought alongside their non-Jewish neighbors to secure American independence from Great Britain in the 1770s, and in the 1860s, many others fought in the Civil War — some for one side, some for the other.
As the country expanded, so, too, did its Jewish population, building new communities in Ohio, Missouri, Nevada and elsewhere.
The first Jewish settler in the Washington territory arrived in 1845. That’s when a young Latvian immigrant named Adolph Friedman settled in Tacoma and opened a shop selling supplies to local fisherman. His business thrived, and in the early 20th century he bought a large parcel of land near Steilacoom. The tract is now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
We’re not certain who Seattle’s first Jew was, but it may have been Bailey Gatzert. He arrived in 1869 to run a store owned by his brothers-in-law, the Schwabachers. Not content to stick to business, Gatzert became involved in politics. In 1875, the citizens of Seattle elected him their eighth mayor.
Later, Gatzert helped create Seattle’s cable-car system, its Chamber of Commerce and its first synagogue. When President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the city, the Gatzerts entertained him at their home.
We came, we saw, we set down roots. Today, there are about 5½ million Jews in the United States, of whom more than 43,000 live in Washington, most in the Seattle area.
Our 359 years in America haven’t been perfect, but so far it’s been a very good run. Some Jews, like the 23 immigrants from Brazil, arrived as refugees — tired, poor, yearning to breathe free … or at least to just breathe.
Others, like Adolph Friedman and countless Americans of other groups, came for financial opportunity. Still, others arrived Bailey Gatzert-style, throwing themselves into the hurly-burly of American communal and political life.
Now, Jews live in every part of our nation, and as a group we are thriving as never before. We’ve flourished as Americans, of course, but we’ve also created one of the most splendid Jewish civilizations in history, with fine Jewish schools, bustling synagogues, magnificent Jewish artwork and much, much more.
Yes, we struggle. Judaism has a lot of rules, which can sometimes make it a hard-sell in this land of liberty. In our increasingly connected society, we, like other groups, see the fabric of Jewish communal life beginning to fray in spots. Sometimes — even now — there is anti-Semitism. And for good measure, these days, it’s really hard to find a good bagel around here.
Nevertheless, looking at the big picture, it’s safe to say that for us Jews, America has been a blessing of astounding proportions. Its borders opened and the nation took us in — not all of us, but many. The freedom it offered allowed Jewish life to blossom. Its dream became our dream and its fate our own.
I, for one, am unspeakably proud to be one of its citizens.
So on Thursday, the Fourth of July, as the picnickers picnic; and the marching bands march; and the crowds cheer beneath fireworks glimmering in the sky, we Jews will celebrate with everyone else. And as America wishes itself a happy birthday, we’ll add our own grateful, “Mazel tov” to the nation we now call home.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org