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First Shearith Israel Graveyard,
A Place That Matters

first shearith israel graveyard

In September 1654, twenty-three Jews from Recife, Brazil, held Rosh Hashanah services in New Amsterdam, thereby founding the Congregation Shearith Israel. It remained the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825.

The early Sephardic settlement (along with those of the Quakers, the French and the English) helped to foster cultural diversity and religious tolerance in New Netherland. Civil and religious liberties won by this small Jewish community were important not only for the development of New York City, but for the United States as a whole.

One such liberty earned was the permission to buy a parcel of land for burial purposes, granted by order of the Director General and Council in February 1656. The First Shearith Israel Graveyard at St. James Place in Manhattan is the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the country.  Many of those who had fought arduously for full political equality and the right to hold public office are buried there. (Until 1788, New York was the only colony to offer these rights to its Jewish citizens).

This graveyard is actually the second burial ground established by Congregation Shearith Israel, but sadly no trace of the original has been found. The oldest extant tombstone belongs to Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita and dates from 1683. It is one of seventy legible headstones, marking 107 graves, inscribed in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese and, after 1719, English.

As the city’s boundaries continued to expand, burials were no longer permitted south of Grand Street by 1805. Shearith Israel purchased a second plot on West 11th street in the Village and a third on West 21st street. The “Second” and “Third” graveyards remained in use until 1851 when another ban disallowed burials below 86th street. The Shearith Israel congregation also moved north with the expansion of the city and continues to thrive in their landmark synagogue on West 70th street.

The First Shearith Israel cemetery was designated as a New York City landmark in 1966 and is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Nominator Pat De Angelis wrote, “This place matters to me because it has endured, and because it is a remnant of the past that has quietly been respected by the many ethnic groups that have lived in this busy part of downtown.”