Medal Commemorating 350 Years of Jewish Life in America

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The exhibit “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America (1654-2004)” featured more than two hundred treasures of American Judaica from the collections of the Library of Congress, augmented by a selection of important loans from other cooperating cultural institutions. It was shown in Washington DC, Cincinnati, New York, and Los Angeles between September 2004 and February 2006.

At the very end of the exhibit three medals were shown. The first marked the 250th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America, one of which was presented to President Theodore Roosevelt "in recognition of his humane endeavors on behalf of the Jews oppressed in other lands." The medal commemorating the 300th anniversary bore the inscription: "Man's Opportunities and Responsibilities Under Freedom." On the obverse of the new medal celebrating the 350th anniversary is an extended excerpt from George Washington's reply to Newport's Hebrew Congregation including the immortal words “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” which are inscribed above a New York-like skyline. A biblical quote from Leviticus appears on the medal’s other side in both English and Hebrew: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land.” Also shown is a group of men, women and children on a journey of liberation. Some see them in the shape of a ship's prow, signifying the millions of immigrants who came to America by boat. They look towards stars and stripes, representing the hope for a new life, full with opportunities, for all people.

Historic Background

Most of the Jewish population of Recife had come from Holland to one of the only regions in the New World where they were permitted to practice their religion openly. But despite official tolerance, the Jewish community in Dutch Brazil encountered hostility and discrimination.

When Portugal reconquered the area in the mid-1600s, some Jews were executed as allies of the Dutch, and others were sent to Lisbon where they were handed over to the Inquisition; still others returned to Holland. After the fall of Recife in 1654, the Portuguese expelled the Jews. One group set out for Amsterdam on a vessel called the Ste. Catherine. En route, after stops in Jamaica and Cuba, the ship was captured by a Spanish privateer and the passengers were stripped of their valuables. A return to Europe was now out of the question.

The refugees struck a deal with the ship’s captain, Jacques de la Mothe, to take them instead to New Amsterdam for a fee of 2,500 guilders. Upon their arrival in September, the Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant seized the Jews’ meager remaining possessions to be sold to meet their debts.  When insufficient funds were raised, Stuyvesant jailed two of the refugees and wrote to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam. He asked permission to expel the entire group because they might become a burden on the city (which had a population of only about 800). However, his petition was denied, and permission was granted to the Jewish settlers to live in New Amsterdam “so long as they do not become a burden to the Company or the community.” When the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, the rights of the Jewish residents were reconfirmed.

The history of the Jews in America is unique not only due to the success they have achieved, but also because of the contributions they have made.  In a real sense, the story of the Jews in America is the story of America itself.

For further information about the medals commemorating 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, visit http://www.amuseum.org/jahf/news/newmedal350.html or contact directorjahf@yahoo.com .

A.I.N.A.
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