Jews in America: Jewish Rights in Early Connecticut
The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and the Puritans who founded Boston in 1630 saw themselves as authentic successors to the ancient Hebrews. New England was to be their New Jerusalem, a society based on the covenant between God and Abraham. Just as Moses had led the Jews out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the promised land of Canaan, John Winthrop had led the Puritans out of a corrupt church in England to the wilderness of New England, where a pure church and polity could be re-established. By their own account, biblical Jews inspired the Puritans’ vision and aspirations.
Yet, New England’s Puritans were less than hospitable to Jews they actually found among them. The Connecticut colony they founded offers a clear example of the contradiction between their high regard for biblical Jews and their reluctance to have real-life Jews as neighbors.
According to historians David Dalin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Puritans’ goal in creating Connecticut was largely spiritual. “The opportunity to establish a ‘city on a hill,’” they write, “in which the values of the Puritan community would remain forever enshrined provided the central appeal [to build new towns] for all the heirs of the Mayflower.” Connecticut colony’s 1662 royal charter declared that “the Christian faith is the only and principal end of this plantation.” The Puritan or Congregational Church became the official, or “established,” form of worship. In 1708, the Puritandominated legislature granted limited toleration to Anglicans, Quakers and Baptists, and in 1727, as a concession to the English Crown, Anglicans were permitted to build their own churches and hold services openly.
As Dalin and Rosenbaum note, however, Jews were lumped “with heretics, Catholics [and others] to whom it was illegal to give food or lodging under the early legal codes of Hartford and New Haven.” The royal charter explicitly denied Jews the right to build synagogues, worship as an assembled group, purchase land for a cemetery, vote or hold public office. It is no surprise, then, that only a handful of Jews resided in Connecticut during the years of Puritan domination. The first reference to a Jew in Connecticut is to one “David the Jew,” who was arrested and fined by a Hartford court in 1659 for illegal peddling. A more telling case is that of Jacob Lucena, identified as “Jacob the Jew” in court records, who in 1670 was charged, in a manner reminiscent of 2Oth-century Southern lynch mobs, with the crime of being “notorious in his lascivious dalliance and wanton carriage and proffers to several women.”
Lucena was found guilty of the charge and fined 20 pounds sterling, an astounding sum for those times. Two days later, the court reconsidered and, in its mercy, reduced the sum to 10 pounds. Still unable to pay, Lucena pleaded with Asser Levy of New Amsterdam, one of the original 23 Jews who landed there in 1654, to come to Connecticut to plead his case. “As a token of respect for said Asser Levy,” the court once again halved the fine. Lucena paid it and quickly fled Connecticut.
Despite the ban on an organized Jewish community, a handful of Jews continued to migrate to Connecticut. By the time of the American Revolution, the east end of Hartford’s State Street was referred to as “Jew Street,” indicating that there was a hearty band of Jewish residents who lived and worked together in the colony’s capital. Jews also resided in Branford, Woodstock, Stamford, Norwalk and New Haven. In 1818, a state convention adopted a new constitution for Connecticut, which disestablished Congregationalism as the state’s official church and allowed Jews the right to vote and hold public office. The freedom to form congregations and worship publicly, however, was still limited to Protestants.
By the 1840s, conditions finally were ripe for change. Given their First Amendment rights, the middle-class, German-speaking Jewish immigrants in Hartford and New Haven would not tolerate religious discrimination. In May 1843, a petition was introduced in the General Assembly on behalf of the Jews of Hartford and New Haven asking for an amendment to the state constitution so that they might form synagogues and worship openly. The Assembly’s Judicial Committee turned down the request but recommended legislation, rather than a constitutional amendment, to grant Jews religious rights. In June, the legislature enacted a bill providing “that Jews who may desire to unite and form religious societies, shall have the same right, powers and privileges which are given to Christians of every denomination.”
By the fall of 1843, a minyan was meeting in various private Hartford homes. In 1856 using a bequest from Judah Touro of New Orleans, the congregation, which took the name Congregation Beth Israel, built the first synagogue in Connecticut. After 220 years, Puritan resistance to Jewish life in Connecticut was laid to rest.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society