Jewish Immigration to America

A Jewish journey to America (video slides)


Today, America’s Jewish community is largely Ashkenazic, meaning it is made up of Jews who trace their ancestry to Germany and Eastern Europe. However, the first Jews to arrive in what would become the United States were Sephardic — tracing their ancestry to Spain and Portugal.

Historians have traditionally divided American Jewish immigration into three periods: Sephardic, German, and Eastern European. While the case can be made that during each period, immigrants were not solely of any one origin (Some Germans came during the “Sephardic” period and some Eastern Europeans arrived during the “German” era, for example), the fact remains that the dominant immigrant group at the time influenced the character of the American Jewish community.

 Sephardic Jews

The first group of Sephardic settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil. For several decades afterward, adventurous Sephardic and Ashkenazic merchants established homes in American colonial ports, including Newport, R.I., New Amsterdam (later New York), Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

While the Ashkenazi Jews outnumbered the Sephardic ones by 1730, the character of the American Jewish community remained Sephardic through the American Revolution.

The Germans

German Jews began to come to America in significant numbers in the 1840s. Jews left Germany because of persecution, restrictive laws, economic hardship, and the failure of movements — widely supported by German Jews — advocating revolution and reform there. They looked to America as an antidote to these ills — a place of economic and social opportunity.

Some 250,000 German-speaking Jews came to America by the outbreak of World War I.This sizable immigrant community expanded American Jewish geography by establishing themselves in smaller cities and towns in the Midwest, West, and the South. German Jewish immigrants often started out as peddlers and settled in one of the towns on their route, starting a small store there. This dispersion helped to establish American Judaism as a national faith.

If German Jews had one city of their own invention, it was Cincinnati. German immigrants flocked to this area, which was considered a gateway to trade in the Midwest and West. Cincinnati became the seat of American Reform Judaism, home to the movement’s first American leader, Isaac Mayer Wise (an immigrant from Bohemia), and its newspaper and seminary.

The Eastern Europeans

Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers after 1880. Pushed out of Europe by overpopulation, oppressive legislation and poverty, they were pulled toward America by the prospect of financial and social advancement. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America. Once again, the character of American Jewry was transformed, as the Eastern Europeans became the majority.

The immigrants tended to settle in the poorer neighborhoods of major cities. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Chicago, for example, all featured Jewish sections by the turn of the 20th century. Living conditions in these neighborhoods were often cramped and squalid. The immigrants found work in factories, especially in the garment industry, but also in cigar manufacturing, food production, and construction. Jewish workers supported the labor movement’s struggle for better working conditions. Yiddish culture, in the form of drama, journalism, and prose, flourished in American Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, and the plight of the immigrant worker was a common cultural theme.

The Eastern European Jews also brought with them certain ideological principles that would influence American Jewry. Many of the workers supported socialism or communism as a means of securing economic and social equality. In this manner, the Eastern Europeans established a strong link between American Jews and liberal politics.


Large-scale Jewish immigration to the United States ended in 1924. Still, the contemporary American Jewish community remains very much a product of these founding groups.

The Jewish Emigration from the Former Soviet Union

Following cold war politics and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, over 1.8 million Jews and their non-Jewish family members emigrated from the FSU in two main waves. The first wave, between 1970 and 1988, included about 350,000 emigrants. The second wave started in the late 1980s and included, until 2000, about 1.5 million emigrants. The major destination countries for the Jews from USSR/FSU during 1968–2000 have been Israel (about 1.1 million), the US (over 400,000), Germany (about 130,000), and Canada (about 30,000). Exit visas from the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s were granted to the Jews only following a request for family reunification from relatives (real or forged by the Jewish Agency) in Israel. The journey to Israel required a stopover in transit centres in Europe, where the emigrants were entitled to apply for a refugee visa for the US (and for a few years also to Canada) or fly directly to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship upon arrival. Those who chose the latter option were no longer entitled to refugee status in the US. Between 1970 and 1989 approximately 160,000 Soviet-born refugees were admitted to the US, and about 170,000 came to Israel. The share of Jewish emigrants from the FSU who chose the US as their destination rose until October 1989, after which it declined sharply to 16%, when the American authorities stopped granting refugee visas to FSU emigrants and limited their entry to 50,000 per year.4 However, many FSU Jews were quick to find alternative methods to enter the US, and about one-third of them went to America during 1992–95. Starting in 1996, however, the share of emigrants going to the US declined again.