23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil on their way back to Holland were stranded in New Amsterdam after their ship was wrecked. Since it was difficult for them to return to Europe they asked Peter Stuyvesant, the anti-Semitic Director of New Netherland, if they could remain. He didn't really want them to stay, so he wrote to his directors at the Dutch West India Company asking for permission to force them to leave. The Company was having trouble attracting settlers to the colony and were delighted to have the additional residents. Initially, they rented space on Mill Street for a synagogue and then constructed their own building. The congregation is currently uptown on Central Park West. Their cemetery is in Chinatown.
First Mill Street SynagogueThe little synagogue on Mill Street was consecrated on the seventh day of Passover, April 8, 1730. It was the first structure designed and built to be a synagogue in continental North America. Mill Street is now called South William Street, located in what is now known as the Wall Street section of Lower Manhattan. The first synagogue in North America once stood on this site near 22 S William Street, which was at that time called Mill Street.
By 1818, the original Mill Street Synagogue was too small to accommodate the growing Jewish community. It housed our congregation from April 17, 1818 until April 13, 1833. A decision was made to build a larger synagogue on the same site.It provided one hundred sixty-seven seats for men and one hundred thirty-three seats for women. The new synagogue was built of brick and stone with a surface of Roman cement. The women's gallery was reached by a covered passageway from the upper story of the adjoining brick schoolhouse on the north. This passageway was built as a narrow bridge over the space intervening between the schoolhouse and the synagogue, so that in general the space would not be covered in, and when each year the congregational succah was built there the succah's roof could be open to the heavens.
At the population of the city, including the Jews, was moving uptown, the location on Mill Street (now South William Street) in Lower Manhattan became increasingly inconvenient. In 1834 the congregation built a new synagogue on Crosby Street (street numbers 56 to 62), between Broom and Spring Street. It was fifty-three feet wide and seventy five feet long, substantially larger that the previous two buildings. The conerstone for this building was the same one that had been used in the first Mill Street synagogue - a vivid symbol of the continuity of generations and traditions within the congregation. The synagogue was built with a basement, ten feet high, which was used for housing a chapel, the congregational school, and meeting rooms.The Crosby Street synagogue was described in the New York Times as a "remarkably neat building." The Boston Courier reported that it had been "constructed in admirable taste."
Members of the congregation continued to move uptown and so in 1860 Shearith Israel built its fourth synagogue, this one on nineteenth Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. The ceremonies of consecration were set for Wednesday, September 12, 1860, a date which was characterized as commemorating the 206th anniversary of the arrival of the Founding Fathers of Shearith Israel on the island of Manhattan. The building was nearly square, and built in the Palladian style of architecture, in two orders- the Ionic and Corinthian. It was surmounted by a high, octagonal dome with paneled sides. The materials of the front were Dorchester or Nova Scotia stone.The Jewish Messenger noted that "the present place of worship is probably the handsomest edifice of this kind in the United States." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper reported that "it is said that the ark of this Synagogue is the finest in the world" and that the synagogue as a whole was "decidedly one of the prominent lions and curiosities of New York." In 1860, it was the highest building to be seen above Fourteenth Street. Poor acoustics and many flights of steps made the grand and stately building difficult to use. No sooner had the congregation moved into the Ninteenth Street synagogue than there was already talk of moving again. Additionally, the neighborhood began to change, becoming more commercial and less residential as congregants continued moving uptown.
The plot had previously housed a duck farm. The architect of this building was Arnold Brunner, an American-born Jewish architect with a distinguished career. In designing Shearith Israel, Brunner drew on the congregation's historic allegience to the neo-classical style evident in its previous buildings. Nineteenth century Reform congregations had been building synagogues of the Moorish, Romanesque and Gothic design. In contrast, Shearith Israel clung to traditional neo-classical architecture, a refecltion and reaffirmation of its commitment to tradition. The building was designed with great taste by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who not only created the extraordinary glass windows but also planned the interior design and color scheme.