Jewish American Heritage Month is a month to celebrate the contributions Jewish Americans have made to America since the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants in New Amsterdam in 1654.
Every year since 1980, Congress and the President have acted together to declare an official observance to recognize the contributions of Jewish Americans to American society. Since 2006, Congress and the President have proclaimed that the month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month. On April 28, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued this year’s proclamation. In his statement, President Trump said: “The achievements of American Jews are felt throughout American society and culture, in every field and in every profession. American Jews have built institutions of higher learning, hospitals, and manifold cultural and philanthropic organizations.”
As this is a law blog, we thought we would take a look at three Jewish Americans who were among the earliest to contribute to the legal profession in America:
Asser Levy van Swellem
The government of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (which became New York after its capture by the English in 1664) did not recognize attorneys as a distinct profession. In its court, the Court of the Schout, Burgomaster and Shepens, neither the judges nor the advocates had the benefit of formal legal education. But since cases were nevertheless tried, people found it useful to rely on whoever among their neighbors was most skillful at pressing claims in court to represent them when the need arose. One person who frequently appeared as an advocate in the court records of the time was a Jewish man named Asser Levy van Swellem (d. 1680). Although he was probably born and raised in Amsterdam, Asser Levy was connected to the group of 23 Jewish immigrants who arrived from Brazil in 1654, a group that is often thought of as the first Jewish immigrants to the region that would later become the United States (Jews, however, likely arrived in what is now New Mexico somewhat before this time). A butcher by trade, he became one of the first licensed butchers in the colony. Within a year of his arrival, he successfully petitioned the governor to remove a ban on Jews bearing arms in defense of the colony and to undo a discriminatory tax. In 1657, he successfully petitioned the governor to remove a ban on Jews’ enjoyment of certain trade privileges. In an astonishingly short time, he built trade relations with partners as far away as New England and built relationships with merchants in Holland whose interests he represented in court. By 1661, he purchased an estate near Albany, as well as a piece of land in lower Manhattan (becoming the first Jewish citizen to own land in New York City). By 1664, he was counted among the wealthy men of the colony who were asked to finance the defense of the city from the English. In the meantime, he participated in several dozen lawsuits, representing himself and many others, both in New York and in neighboring Connecticut. His name appears frequently as a trustee and as executor of a number of Christian wills. Records show he contributed funds for the construction of the city’s first Lutheran Church. Toward the end of his life, he owned a successful tavern and a slaughterhouse in New York City.
One of the earliest known Jewish settlers of Pennsylvania was Isaac Miranda (d. 1733). He was said to have come to Philadelphia from Tuscany, Italy, by way of London as early as 1710, and may have been the first Jewish resident of that city. He settled in Lancaster in 1715, where he is known to be the first Jewish inhabitant. Other families soon followed, so that by 1740, there were ten Jewish families in Lancaster. Although he kept a collection of Hebrew books, which he brought with him from abroad, he maintained that he was a Christian; he likely converted to marry his wife, Mary Raynolds, in London before coming to America. The secretary of the province of Pennsylvania, James Logan, described him in 1723 as a superficial convert to Christianity. The accusation was not trivial. Under William Penn’s Charter of Pennsylvania, Jews were free to worship, but they could not vote or hold public office. In 1727, the colonial administration appointed him “agent to receive and collect the perquisites and rights of Admiralty,” and on June 19, 1727, he was made a deputy judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court. This appointment made Miranda the first Jew to hold a judicial office in America. Over time, Miranda grew wealthy from trade with Native Americans and came to own a significant amount of land, including two houses in Philadelphia. He died in Lancaster in 1733.
After the English seized New York from Dutch control, the colony prohibited Jews from practicing law. This prohibition remained in force for most of the 18th century until it was lifted after the enactment of the New York Constitution of 1777. It was not until 1802, however, that a Jewish attorney was admitted to the New York bar. His name was Sampson Simson (1780-1857). Simson was born in Danbury, Connecticut, where his father, also named Sampson Simson, had taken his family when the British occupied New York during the War for Independence. Sampson Simson the elder was a successful shipowner; his success left his son with a large fortune that supported him throughout his life. Sampson Simson (the younger) graduated from Columbia College in 1800, the first Jew to graduate from that institution. He read law with Aaron Burr (the sitting vice president of the United States) between 1800 and 1802 and practiced law in the law office of J.L. and H.L. Riker at 150 Nassau Street. He practiced law for a short time–only a few years–before an accident left him temporarily disabled. Afterwards, he retired to his farm in Yonkers for a life of charitable work and philanthropy. It is for this work that he is most remembered. Chief among his accomplishments was his role in founding in 1852 the Jews’ Hospital, renamed Mount Sinai Hospital in 1866. The hospital was built on land donated by Simson on W. 28th St. between 7th and 8th Avenues. He served as the first president of its board of directors and for the remaining years of his life personally assumed many of the hospital’s financial burdens. In 1856, he helped to fund the purchase of the Welsh Chapel on Allen Street to house the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, a new and rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish congregation. He bequeathed a large sum of money to the North American Relief Society for Indigent Jews in Jerusalem, an organization that supported the impoverished Jewish community then living in Ottoman Palestine. Myer S. Isaacs (1841-1904), a Jewish attorney and philanthropist who lived in New York throughout the second half of the 19th century, recorded his personal recollections of Simson in 1902. He remembered Simson and his father chatting endlessly about their memories of the important men of the founding generation as well as about their religious and philanthropic activities. He recalls:
“He affected the old fashioned costume, sometimes wearing knee breeches and buckles. He was above the average height, very stiff and upright in his bearing. His hair was white and he wore it in long wavy locks. His spectacles were of great size. His habitual walk was in short, quick steps-and he carried a silver headed cane, upon which he would lean when seated. His voice was not musical and he rarely laughed. He was exacting and even tyrannical-would not endure criticism or contraction…there were men he did not like and he let them perceive it quickly…He was precise in his religious views, rose very early and spent some time at his devotions…he was interested in prison reform…He was a great admirer of Andrew Jackson and preserved a stick presented to him by the President. He was captain of a regiment of Militia, but it is not known that he took part in active service. In the practice of law, he was always considerate towards colored people. He was specially interested in agricultural affairs; new machines attracted him.”