Our History

Welcome to Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York.

Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 and was the first Jewish congregation to be established in North America. The building we are in now was consecrated in 1897, and is the fifth synagogue building which the congregation has built in its history. Until the year 1730, the congregation met in rented quarters. In 1730 we built our first synagogue building on Mill Street, now known as South William Street. You may see many of the furnishings of that building in our page on the Little Synagogue.

Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During this entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to our congregation. Shearith Israel was founded by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had been living in Recife, Brazil. When the Portuguese defeated the Dutch for control of Recife, the Jews of the area left. Some went back to Amsterdam, others to places such as St. Thomas, Jamaica, Surinam and Curacao. One group of 23 Jews, after a series of accidents, ended up in New Amsterdam. They were not welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who did not like the idea of Jews being allowed to settle here. However, these Jewish individuals fought for their rights and won permission to settle here. During the colonial days, the Jewish community was relatively small.

Members of Shearith Israel played an important role in civic life from the earliest times. Three of our members were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Many of the congregants served the cause of the American Revolution.

Each year we have a special ceremony near Memorial Day at our Chatham Square cemetery, paying tribute to those of our congregants who served in the Revolutionary War.

The congregation provided for all the needs of the Jewish community, from birth to death. It provided education in both religious and general subjects, provided kasher meat and Passover provisions, and performed a wide variety of other functions for the Jewish community.
Even from the early days, Shearith Israel had Sephardic and Ashkenazic members. Although the service itself follows the custom of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the membership is diverse. At present it is composed of many Sephardim and Ashkenazim who work together in harmony for the well-being of our congregation and community.

Shearith Israel or members of the congregation have been involved in founding many institutions in the city, such as Mt. Sinai Hospital, Montefiore Hospital, the Lexington School for the Deaf, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Sephardic Studies Program of Yeshiva University and so many more.

This building that we are in now is built in the style of Spanish and Portuguese congregations. The reader’s desk is toward the center of the room. According to our tradition, the floor boards of the reader’s desk date back to the reader’s desk in our Mill Street Synagogue, highlighting the continuity of the generations in Shearith Israel. The clergy of the congregation sit on the semicircular bench at the reader’s desk. The President and Vice President of the synagogue sit on the benches against the East wall. Sermons are given from the pulpit. There is a choir loft above the Ark, and a professional choir participates in services each Friday evening and Shabbat morning, as well as on holidays. The architect of this building was Arnold Brunner, an American-born Jewish architect with a distinguished career.