Jews in Colonial New York

PMH Staff
Published on
December 18, 2022

When the Dutch colony of New Netherland was formed in 1614,there were already Jews living in the New World. During the 1492 Expulsion of Jews from Spain, many Sephardic Jews fled to Portugal, France, England, Holland, and North Africa. But the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536 meant that even Jews who had converted to Catholicism (“conversos”) were not safe. Many fled to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. When the Dutch took control of the Brazil colony in 1624, many “conversos” returned to openly practicing their Jewish faith. In 1654, Brazil reverted to the Portuguese, and its Jewish residents had to leave again to avoid persecution. Of the 16 ships that left Brazil for Holland, all but one made it. That one was captured by Spanish pirates, who in turn were captured by a French privateer. The 23 Jewish refugees on board convinced the French captain to take them to the closest Dutch colony.

“Just a few days before Rosh Hashonah, in September 1654, twenty-three storm-tossed, destitute Jews were deposited upon the wharf in the harbor of New Amsterdam.”[1]

Although the official state religion of the Netherlands at the time was the Dutch Reformed Church, a brand of Calvinism, the official policy was of toleration. Other religions would not be persecuted, but neither would they be encouraged to worship openly, nor would they receive any support from the state. But Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant was particularly vocal in his anti-Semitism. The French ship captain who took them to New Amsterdam claimed they owed him payment for passage. Having previously been robbed by Spanish pirates, they were unable to pay. Stuyvesant sided with the French captain. What few belongings they had left were sold at public auction to raise the funds. When the funds were insufficient to pay the captain, Stuyvesant ordered two members of the group held in prison as collateral and wrote to the Dutch West India Company asking for permission to expel the group. At the same time the group wrote to their friends and family in Holland, who in turn interceded on their behalf with the Dutch West India Company, arguing that the laws in Holland allowing Jewish settlement should also apply in their colonies. In April, 1655, six months after the 23 had arrived in New Amsterdam, the Company agreed, granting permission for Jews to emigrate to and reside in New Netherland, “so long as they do not become a burden on the settlement.”[2]  

Portrait of Peter Stuyvesant, c. 1660, oil on panel. Attributed to Hendrick Couturier. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Stuyvesant tried several more times to make life difficult for the Jewish residents of New Netherland. He denied them service in the home guard, and then charged a tax for non-service. He also tried to deny them business opportunities as the colony expanded to absorb New Sweden. But the Jewish residents fought back. In particular, Asser Levy [3], often contested Stuyvesant’s positions in court, and usually won. Levy petitioned to claim his right as a “burgher,” or a free citizen with certain rights including owning property and engaging in trade. Although initially denied, he appealed and won the status of “burgher” in 1657.

We know so much about Asser Levy because he shows up often in the colonial court records.[4] In addition to traveling back to Amsterdam and Germany for business (including business disputes), Levy was also a registered butcher in the colony, although he was exempt from having to butcher hogs. It’s likely he took on this role to help keep a supply of kosher meat available to his Jewish neighbors. When the colony is taken over by the British in 1664, Levy was the only Jewish resident of New Amsterdam to donate to its defense.[5] But when the British won the bloodless coup, Levy pledged allegiance to the Crown, keeping all of the rights he had under Dutch rule. In 1671 he was the first Jew to serve on a jury in the colony.[6] In the 1670s he purchased land in New York City and built a slaughterhouse. Upon his death in 1683, he left a considerable estate. Today, a New York City park is named after him.

Gomez Mill House - note the original fieldstone walls - the oldest part of the house. Photo by Daniel Case, 2007.

But while Levy was one of the most prominent early Jewish residents of New Netherland, he was not the only one. Luis Moses Gomez, whose family had fled Spain for France during the Inquisition and later London, emigrated to the West Indies in the 1680s. By the 1700s, he and his family had moved to New York. Declared a denizen in 1705, Gomez and his children became successful merchants, trading with contacts in the Caribbean, including Curaçao, and operating stores in New York City and elsewhere. In Westchester County, they became involved in the wheat trade, about the same time that they crossed the Hudson for the fur trade. In 1714 (or 1716, sources differ), Luis Moses Gomez bought 3,000 acres in what is today Marlboro, NY, on the border of present-day Orange and Ulster counties. There, in 1716, he built a block house trading post along a tributary of the Hudson. Gomez Mill House is thought to be the oldest standing Jewish residence in North America, dating back to 1716.  

Portrait of Moses Levy, attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck I, ca. 1735, oil on canvas, 45 1/8 x 35 3/4 in. (114.6 x 90.8 cm), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Moses died in 1728, so it is likely that this portrait is from before 1735.

Another early Jewish settler was Moses Levy. He and his brother Samuel were relatives of Asser Levy.[7] Born in 1665 in Germany, Moses was the first known Jewish resident of Westchester County. In 1716, he purchased 75 acres on what is now Manursing Island in Rye. He was a successful international trader and worked with the Philipse family.[8] Moses Levy is best known for his role in a court case that resulted in the first execution of a Jew in New York. Levy accused recent immigrant Moses Sussman, who spoke no English, of stealing gold and money from him. At the time, Levy was one of the wealthiest merchants in New York. “Sussman could not even afford council.” Sussman was found guilty and was hanged for his crime.[9]

Moses Levy's brother Samuel’s 1722 will lists Robert Livingston and Adolph Hardenbrook (likely a relative of Margaret Hardenbroek), among many people owing debts to his estate. He also owned shares in ships, including the pink Charlotte, and sloop Abigail, which he likely co-owned with this brother Moses as well as Jacob Franks, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, and Adolphus Philipse.[10]  Built in 1710 in Philadelphia, the Abigail eventually came under the sole ownership of only Moses Levy and Adolph Philipse. The Abigail primarily sailed between New York and the Caribbean, with at least two trans-Atlantic voyages, one to Lisbon, and one to Madeira.[11] Part of that trade involved slaves, and Moses Levy imported several enslaved people from the Caribbean aboard ships like the Abigail. Although transporting only a few people at a time (between one and four per voyage), Moses Levy was involved in the trade of 24 enslaved people between 1718 and his death in 1728.[12]

Despite sharing ownership of the Abigail, Moses and Samuel Levy did not get on well later in life, and their relationship was marred by lawsuits.[13] Moses was not listed in Samuel’s will, and did not include Samuel in his own will when he died a few years later in 1728. Upon his death, Moses Levy was one of the wealthiest people in New York, in large part due to successful trade in the West Indies.

Another prominent early Jewish family were the Hays. In the 1720s they purchased land in Rye for mining purposes. Although the mining operation didn’t pan out, Jacob Hays became Westchester’s first naturalized Jew in 1723. Jacob and Hetty Hays had several children, and their son Michael became a significant landholder during the American Revolution when Westchester and prices were depressed. His largest purchase was 170 acres of land in the Philipse Manor, purchased December 22, 1785, part of the land seized by the new government under the Acts of Attainder that had led the Philipses to flee to England.[14] The Philipses may have also had Jewish tenant farmers during their tenure, as the first recorded b’rit milah or circumcision, was performed in 1758 at Philipse’s Manor in Yonkers. The baby boy was Benjamin Myer, who would later marry into the Hays family. [15]

The Hays, especially Michael and his younger brother Benjamin, were both Patriots during the American Revolution. Michael’s cattle were stolen by the British, and Benjamin’s inn and tavern – a hotbed of Patriot activity – was burned by Lt. Col. Tarleton during his July, 1779 invasion of Bedford.[16]  

New Netherland and by extension New York State became a relatively safe haven for Jews in a time when prejudice and persecution were still widespread. Thanks to the efforts of people like Asser Levy to ensure legal protections, many of New York’s early Jewish settlers became as successful as their Christian counterparts. The Levyes and Gomezes in particular were of high enough wealth and social status to mingle with manor lords like the Philipses, Van Cortlandts, and Livingstons. To this day, New York State has the highest population of Jews in the country, thanks in large part to its Dutch legal heritage.

Further Reading:

Shargel, Baila R. and Harold L. Drimmer, The Jews of Westchester County: A Social History. Purple Mountain Press (1994).

 Friedman, Saul. Jews and the American Slave Trade. Transaction Publishers (1998,ebook Taylor & Francis, 2017)


[1] Shargel, Baila R. and Harold L. Drimmer, The Jews of Westchester County: A Social History. Purple Mountain Press (1994), p. 5.


[3] Sources dispute whether Asser Levy was one of the 23 refugees, but some sources indicate he was an Ashkenazic Jew (not Sephardic) who emigrated from Holland to New Netherland, arriving in August, 1654, two months before the refugees from Brazil arrived.




[7] Hershkowitz, Leo. “Original Inventories of Early New York Jews (1682–1763) (Concluded).” American Jewish History 90, no. 4 (2002): 385–448.

[8] Shargel, Jews of Westchester County, p. 4.

[9] Shargel, 11-13.

[10] Hershkowitz,”Original Inventories,” p. 386.

[11] Shargel, 28-29.

[12] Friedman, Saul. Jews and the American Slave Trade. Transaction Publishers (1998,ebook Taylor & Francis, 2017) p. 110.

[13] Hershkowitz,Leo. “Wills of Early New York Jews (1704–1740).” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (1966): 319–63.

[14] Shargel, 13-16.

[15] Shargel, 17.

[16] Shargel, 13-16.