The Jewish immigrant experience was unique in North American history. Jews suffered the double discrimination of being both foreign and non-Christian in countries whose cultures were largely defined by Christian patterns of belief and practice. After much discrimination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jewish community as a whole nevertheless prospered in the United States and Canada. In 2001, the American Jewish population was estimated at just over 6 million, or about 2.3 percent of the population. According to the Canadian census of 2001, about 350,000 Canadians claimed Jewish descent, about 1.2 percent of the total population. New York, New York is the center of American Judaism, with a population of more than 1.5 million. Jews make up almost 9 percent of the population of New York State. Toronto and Montreal have the largest Jewish Canadian populations.
Statistics on Jewish immigration are more problematic than for most groups. Before 1948, there was no Jewish homeland, as most Jews had been driven out of Palestine in the first century by the Romans. As most immigration statistics for the 19th and 20th centuries related principally to country of origin or land of birth, Jewish numbers were obscured. Closely related to the means of collecting data was the group’s wide dispersion. Jews inhabited most European countries and many Middle Eastern countries, complicating estimates based on emigration records or historical circumstances. Having come in large numbers from central Europe (where they spoke German), eastern Europe (where they spoke Yiddish), and North Africa and the Balkans (where they spoke Ladino), they had no common language and quickly gave up their Old World languages in favor of English or French. Finally, there is no clear consensus on the standards for being Jewish. Although Judaism is rooted in the traditional religious beliefs and practices that originated in Palestine during the second millennium B.C. perhaps 20 percent or more of Jews are not religious. Among those who are, the Orthodox carefully observe the historical rules of the Torah, while Reform Jews look to scripture for moral principles that can be adapted to the changing circumstances of Jewish life. Reconstructionist Jews are more concerned with the preservation of Jewish culture than Jewish religion, though the former incorporates many elements of the latter. Many wholly secular Jews continue to celebrate religious holidays and observe traditionally religious ceremonies, though only for cultural reasons.
Jews migrated to Britain’s American colonies in small numbers throughout the colonial period, attracted by a religious toleration unknown in Europe. By the 1780s, there were already 3,000 Jews in America. Between 1820 and 1880, a new wave of mostly German-speaking Jews came to the United States. By the 1840s, Jews numbered almost 50,000, with significant populations in most cities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and throughout the Midwest. By 1860, there were 150,000 Jews and some 200 congregations in the United States. Cincinnati, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, emerged as Jewish cultural centers during the 1870s, as the total Jewish population rose to a quarter million. As Jews began to enter mainstream American culture, they increasingly adapted their religious and cultural patterns to their new surroundings. Out of this accommodation arose Reform Judaism.
Young Jews who were freed from Buchenwald. Highly educated German and east European Jews were welcomed as refugees from Nazi aggression, but anti-Semitism generally remained strong in the United States and Canada during World War II. (National Archives)
The greatest phase of Jewish immigration to the United States came between 1880 and 1924, a period that saw the Jewish population increase from about 250,000 to 4.5 million and saw the center of Jewish life shift from Europe to the United States. With Jewish persecution on the rise during an intensely nationalistic period in European history, some 2 million Jews—known as Ashkenazim—fled Poland, Russia, Romania, Galicia (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and other regions of eastern Europe. Also during this period, about 35,000 Sephardic Jews arrived, mainly from Turkey and Syria. These mainly Orthodox Jews from eastern Europe and the Middle East were often an embarrassment to well-established Reform Jews, who were well on their way toward assimilation, creating some tension within the American Jewish community. After 1890, the vast majority of Jews settled in New York City and other parts of the northern seaboard. Although half of America’s Jews lived in New York City by 1914, there were many thriving, independent Jewish communities spread throughout the country. National restrictions imposed by the JOHNSON- REED ACT of 1924 limited annual Jewish immigration to about 10,000, with few allowances made for extreme anti-Semitic conditions in Europe during the 1930s. Most of the 150,000 Jews who immigrated to the United States in the years leading up to World War II (1939–45) were professionals and other members of the middle classes, about 3,000 of whom were admitted under special visas aimed at rescuing prominent artists and scientists. By and large, however, few special provisions were made for Jewish immigrants. As late as 1941, a bill that would have allowed entry to 20,000 German Jewish children was defeated in Congress. In response to the horrors of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews died at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” to exterminate them, special provisions were made for tens of thousands of Jews under the Displaced Persons Act (1948) and related immigrant regulations. Immigration remained relatively small until the early 1980s, when economic turmoil in the Soviet Union led to a massive exodus of Russian and Ukrainian Jews, especially after the ascension of the liberalizing Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. More than 200,000 eventually settled in the United States between 1980 and 2000.
The first Canadian synogogue was organized in 1768 in Montreal, a city with strong promise of commercial success. It maintained close ties to the primary congregation in New York City, though these and other ties with America were soon severed by revolution. The Jewish population in Canada remained small, growing from 451 in 1851 to only 1,333 20 years later. The perception of greater economic opportunity, combined with the increasing religious intolerance in Russia (including modern Poland and Lithuania) that erupted in violent pogroms in 1881, changed the character of Jewish immigration to North America. Whereas most Jews were of German or British origin prior to 1880, the majority thereafter emigrated from Russia, Austria-Hungary, or Romania. About 10,000 arrived in Canada by the turn of the century, many of them sponsored by Jewish charitable groups such as the Citizens Committee Jewish Relief Fund and the Jewish Emigration Aid Society. This migration led to the establishment of a significant Jewish community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and raised the Jewish population to 16,401.
Jewish immigration to Canada peaked between 1900 and 1914, when almost 100,000 entered the country. Most of the growth occurred in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg, though congregations substantially increased in Ottawa, Hamilton, and Fort William, Ontario; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Calgary, Alberta. Congregations were established for the first time in Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan, and Edmonton, Alberta. The great influx changed the character of Canadian Jewry. With more arrivals from eastern Europe, cultural homogeneity declined, while economic and political diversity increased.
While there were many similarities in the experience of American and Canadian Jews, including economic background, settlement and labor patterns, cultural life, and social discrimination, there were a number of unique factors affecting Canada’s Jews. For instance, in the province of Quebec, where nearly half of Canada’s Jews lived, there was no legal educational provision for Jewish children. This led to a highly organized civil rights movement between 1903 and 1930, which had no counterpart in the United States. More generally, the Jewish presence in Quebec was viewed with hostility by French-Canadian nationalists, who tended to emphasize agriculture, antistatism, and ultramontane Roman Catholicism. Whereas American Jewish life tended to be dominated by the Reform Judaism of German immigrants, Canadian Judaic culture was more Orthodox and thus less easily assimilated. This was reflected in a deeper commitment on the part of the Canadian Jewish community to Zionism; in America, Jewish leaders were lukewarm or hostile, fearing that Zionism would raise questions regarding loyalty. More ardent Zionism led to a more persistent suspicion of Jews in Canada. Finally, the substantial Jewish immigration between 1900 and 1930—some 150,000—had a larger relative impact on Canadian culture than in the United States, though it was less dispersed. While most major U.S. cities had substantial Jewish populations, Canadian Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated in Montreal and Toronto prior to 1900 and significantly in Winnipeg thereafter. Canadian policy in the 1930s was rigorously anti-Jewish, and almost no allowances were made for the growing anti-Semitism throughout Germany and other parts of Europe. And although Canada admitted more than 200,000 refugees after World War II, it generally continued to screen Jews as much as possible. Jewish immigration remained small thereafter, though about 7,000 Hungarian Jews were admitted in the wake of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and more than 8,000 Russian Jews during the 1960s and 1970s, often by way of Israel.
Jewish immigrants, as a group, were the most successful of all the new immigrants in the United States (see new immigration). Though they clearly suffered from discrimination, there were no overtly anti-Semitic politics practiced in the United States, and there was a steady expansion and support for civil rights throughout the country. With more than 500,000 Jews serving in the U.S. military during World War II, their patriotism was unquestioned, and more Jews than ever before began to enter the cultural mainstream. Through organizations such as B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League, they became closely associated with humanitarian and civil liberty causes. Most important, Jews valued education and used high levels of university training to enter the most productive areas of American cultural and economic life.
See also Austro-Hungarian immigration; Evian Conference; Russian immigration; Soviet immigration; World War II and immigration.