The other guest on that segment of This Week, Jennifer, Rabbi Joy Levitt of the Jewish Community Center, seemed awfully ignorant of the religious history of New York City. She said:
Peter Stuyvesant refused to allow synagogues to be built in New York in the 1600s. It took an act of Congress here in Washington to allow a synagogue to be built. … The British wouldn’t allow synagogues to be built in New York City. So, we understand some of this pain, and yet we’ve also experienced a tremendous amount of support in this country, so I think we actually are in a position to both understand and be helpful, to support religious tolerance in this country.
Unlike the New England Puritans, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland, the Dutch did not come to Manhattan to escape religious persecution or to build a shining city on a hill. They came to Manhattan to make a buck. Indeed, they did not even get around to building a proper church for 17 years. Named after St. Nicholas, Santa Claus has been the city’s patron saint ever since. (In fact, the modern version of Santa Claus is a wholly New York invention, developed by such New York writers as Clement Moore and the cartoonist Thomas Nast.)
Peter Stuyvesant, however, was a deeply religious man, adhering to the Dutch Reform Church. He banned both Jews and Quakers from New Amsterdam. They appealed to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam in what is known as the Flushing Remonstrance, often considered the birth of religious freedom in America. The company wrote Governor Stuyvesant and instructed him in no uncertain terms to mind his own business so that the Jews and Quakers could mind theirs.
Congregation Shearith Israel was founded in 1654, while Stuyvesant was still very much governor of New Amsterdam. It is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, now located at Central Park West and 70th Street. It did not require an act of Congress (which wouldn’t even exist until 1789 and Washington wouldn’t be the capital until 1800). All it took was a sharp rap on the knuckles by the Dutch West India Company to remind Peter Stuyvesant what New Amsterdam was all about.
And if the British wouldn’t allow synagogues to be built in New York City, how did Shearith Israel build one on Mill Street in 1730?