This week, The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society announced that the city was likely home to the first Jews who arrived in the US, having arrived in 1565 from Spain.
The Historical Society has been collecting artifacts and gathering information reported for several years and has decided that Jews likely came to St. Augustine with founder Menendez de Aviles. The evidence, if proven, would make St. Augustine the first place Jews lived in the United States, replacing current historical records that state that the first Jews lived in New Amsterdam – New York City - having been present in the city in at least 1654, when the congregation Shearith Israel was founded by Dutch-Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition which had reached Brazil in 1633. That community was the first established in North America and was the only synagogue in New York until the 1820s.
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, one of the society members, pointed to several pieces of evidence. The evidence includes known facts such as that many members of the original settlement were buried facing east, as is a Jewish tradition. In addition, it has been reported that Pedro Menendez, one of the original residents, waited an extra day to come ashore, which the society suspects is because of Yom Kippur, which is typically in September. They also suspect this because Menendez’s wife’s maiden surname was Solis, which is a common Sephardic Jewish surname. Other society members have also found relative’s names on ship manifests.
Sephardic Jews were the first to arrive in the New World after Columbus’ discovery, mainly to evade the Spanish Inquisition which claimed the lives of thousands of Jews and lead to mass fake conversions in order avoid persecution. Those Jews, known as Marranos or Bnei Anousim, acted like Catholics in public but preserved a traditional Jewish lifestyle in private. Jews first came under this guise during the 1500s, arriving in other areas in Central and South America.In 1763, the first full practicing Jews arrived in Pensacola, once England acquired the area from Spain in the Treaty of Paris.