What better pedigree could a group of Jews boast than to have come to the New World with Columbus, to have built the first synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, and to have interacted closely with America’s founding fathers?
And yet, shortly after World War I, there were reports of Sephardi Jews, mainly from southern Europe and the Middle East, who were ostracized by the more numerous Ashkenazi Jews of central New Jersey — to the extent that they weren’t even counted when a minyan was needed.
This is just one of the revelations Nathan Reiss will offer on the evening of July 15, when he speaks at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold.
Reiss, who holds a doctorate in meteorology and taught the subject for 25 years at Rutgers University — including 10 as department chair — is also an accomplished amateur genealogist and historian. In 2005, he published a 1,100-page family history in which he related stories about many of the 14,000 relatives he had discovered.
As a member of the Jewish Historical Society of Central Jersey, he rose through the ranks to become its president in 2003. Sephardi history is an area of special interest to him.
“Though we’re not Sephardi ourselves, my wife and I are longtime members of Congregation Etz Ahaim, a Sephardi congregation in Highland Park. I served as president from 1996 to 2001,” Reiss told NJJN in an e-mail.
Early on, Reiss said, he became “acquainted with many of the older members, who were able to tell me a lot about its history and traditions. The congregation now has many newer Sephardi members, whose backgrounds are different from those of the original founders, and who have their own unique histories and traditions. I believe that the Sephardi presence in central New Jersey is a unique part of its history.”
The great waves of Jewish immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe, stretching from the late 19th century into the first decades of the 20th century, have distorted many people’s understanding of American-Jewish history, Reiss said. During colonial times and the period before and after the Revolution, most American Jews were of Sephardi origin.
Some, he said, were descendants of those who had come here with the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century. They built synagogues and communities around them.
Noting the strength of the Syrian Sephardi community in New Jersey, Reiss said that, like many other immigrant groups, they gathered first in New York City. “When they began to prosper, they came to the shore areas of Monmouth County for weekends and vacations, and eventually built permanent homes there.”
In New Brunswick, Reiss said, Sephardi Jews arrived after World War I. By then, Ashkenazi Jews were entrenched. “The Sephardi Jews, who spoke Ladino, were frequently discriminated against by the German- and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazis.”