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Museum Musings

A Family Tree with Unexpected Roots

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I’ve always envisioned having two specific groups, each having lived at drastically different times and separated by thousands of years, of ancestors. The first group was A Family Tree my foremothers and fathers. The founders of my religion, Judaism, I had studied their lives and stories in the Torah during my thirteen years attending a Hebrew day school. The second group is more like actual relatives, family members who came to America from Europe during the 19th and 20th century, who thrived and grew, with the birth of my grandparents, parents, and then me, a Jewish American.

I accepted these drastically different groups as part of my origins, but never really considered what or who occurred in between biblical times and my distant relatives.
That is, until my first visit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, over two years ago. Just a couple of steps into the core exhibition, I was faced with a family tree of some of the very first Jews who settled in America during the 18th century. These Jews were Spanish and Portuguese, with last names like Gomez and Rodriguez de Rivera. Akin to many of their non-Jewish peers, they were merchants looking for new trade opportunities, and like my relatives who would come over a couple of centuries later, they were also seeking the freedom Jews were not granted in Europe.

Some of these folks formed the first Jewish communities and institutions in North America, like America's first Jewish congregation, Congregation Shearith Israel, who built the first synagogue in New York in 1730 and Touro Synagogue, a 1763 synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era. Others communities were settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

I began to see that I had another distinct group of ancestors. Maybe the Gomezs and Rodriguez de Riveras’ aren’t my actual family, but they certainly laid an important foundation for future generations of Jews, like my relatives, who sought freedom, opportunities, and refuge in the United States.

Contributed by Jessi Melcer, Executive Assistant and Officer Manager
Photo by Jessi Melcer