In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Documentary Collections
  • Memoirs
  • 1654–1820
  • 1820–1880
  • Jews and the Civil War
  • Eastern European Migration and Immigrant Life
  • Twentieth Century
  • History of the American Synagogue
  • Local Synagogue Histories

Jewish Studies United States
Jonathan D. Sarna, Zev Eleff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0060


Jewish communal life in North America began with the arrival of Jewish refugees in New Amsterdam in 1654. By the end of the colonial era, Jews—many of them Sephardic descendants of those expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century—had formed communities in five port cities: Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport. The US Constitution (1787) and Bill of Rights (1791) granted Jews religious equality, but economic uncertainty kept the community small. No more than 3,000 Jews lived in America in 1820, and they had established a handful of synagogues and other basic religious institutions. Beginning in the 1820s, a larger stream of migrants from central Europe arrived. Many of them moved west seeking their fortune on the frontier. Soon, following the American religious pattern, unified synagogue communities broke down into communities of competing synagogues, and in the 1840s the first rabbis arrived in Baltimore to shepherd the burgeoning flock. By the start of the US Civil War, the community numbered about 150,000. Additional migration plus a substantial birth rate brought the population to 250,000 by 1880, by which time the community boasted schools, mutual aid associations, hospitals, Jewish newspapers, and a rabbinical seminary. The late 19th century witnessed heightened eastern European Jewish emigration to America’s shores, spurred by economic privation and anti-Jewish oppression, along with the promise of freedom and opportunity in the New World. Over two million east European Jews migrated to America’s shores before strict immigration quotas were imposed in 1924. By the eve of World War II, America had become the largest Jewish community in the world.

General Overviews

The study of American Jewish history dates back to the 19th century. The American Jewish Historical Society was established in 1892. However, rigorous academic study of the subject only began in earnest following World War II, spurred perhaps most profoundly by the scholarship and archival labors of Jacob Rader Marcus, who founded the American Jewish Archives (AJA) in 1948. Marcus 1989 is a multivolume survey of American Jewish history, making great use of the materials he collected for the AJA. The most recent scholarly overviews of American Jewish history, both of them occasioned by the celebration of the community’s 350th anniversary in 2004, are Diner 2004 and Sarna 2004, both published by major university presses. Diner’s work attempts to cover social, political, economic, cultural, and religious aspects of American Jewish history; Sarna shapes his narrative around religious history, broadly defined. State-of-the-field scholarship may also be found in collections such as Raphael 2008 and Nadell, et al. 2010 that bring together some of the field’s leading scholars. Nadell and Sarna 2001 contains important articles on gender and women.

  • Diner, Hasia R. The Jews of the United States, 1654–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

    A wide-ranging survey of American Jewry that offers social, political, economic, cultural, and religious perspectives, and carefully incorporates the experiences of women. Diner discards the traditional periodization of American Jewish history, which focuses on different immigrant waves, and focuses instead on the era from 1820–1924, when the bulk of Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived, and the community’s major institutions, divisions, and characteristics took form.

  • Marcus, Jacob Rader. United States Jewry, 1776–1985. 4 vols. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.

    Marcus’s exhaustive, multivolume work, a compendium of his years of research in the field, contains data often overlooked by contemporary scholars.

  • Nadell, Pamela S., and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds. Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001.

    A collection of essays on women’s interaction with American Judaism, including articles by some of the leading scholars in the field today.

  • Nadell, Pamela S., Jonathan D. Sarna, and Lance J. Sussman, eds. New Essays in American Jewish History: Commemorating the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Founding of the American Jewish Archives. Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 2010.

    An ambitious and creative collection of essays that treats a range of issues in the field, from the colonial period to the present.

  • Raphael, Marc Lee, ed. The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    Contains valuable survey articles by leading scholars. The book is divided into two sections: one that runs chronologically through American Jewish history, and another that features topical essays.

  • Sarna, Jonathan D. The American Jewish Experience. 2d ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1997.

    This updated second edition collects previously published essays and chapters. Arranged chronologically, with guides to further reading, the textbook provides perspective on the historiography of American Jewish history.

  • Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    A survey of American Jewish history that examines its subject through the lens of American religious history. Argues that American Judaism experiences cyclical revivals and declines.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.