The Sephardim found their way to America in three major waves of immigration. Settlements in New Jersey paralleled these three waves. The first wave was a fairly direct result of the original expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. Some of those who were expelled, including Marranos who pretended to convert, found their way to England and Holland and from there made their way to the Caribbean and to Latin America. The descendants of these Jews were the first Sephardim to find their way to America and for the next century and a half, small numbers of them founded Jewish communities in New York, Newport, Savannah and Charleston. By the time of the Revolution, of the 1000 Jews in the colonies, half were Sephardic. It was not long after this that the Sephardim lost their majority.
The second wave of Sephardim to enter the United States was at the turn of the 20th century. They immigrated from the Balkan countries following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is this group of Sephardim that founded most of the Sephardic institutions that exist today, including the Sephardic community of New Brunswick and Highland Park. These Jews established major communities in New York, Rochester, Atlanta, Birmingham, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. They did not assimilate easily and tended to remain outside the general Jewish population.
Following World War II came the third group of Sephardic Jews to the United States, mostly in sporadic waves. Some were holocaust survivors and later others were those able to get out of the African and Asian countries and the Middle East. After 1973 many others left Israel to come to America.
The very first Jew to arrive in New Jersey was a Sephardic Jew named Aaron Louzada, who settled in Bound Brook in 1698. Louzada and his descendants are known to have lived in New Jersey for at least a century, at which point they disappeared from Jewish history. The Louzada family was originally from Barbados. The origins of Louzada's family could be traced to the time of the Inquisition. Many of Aaron Louzada's relatives were landowners in the Caribbean. Louzada himself held many parcels of land in Central New Jersey. He was a dealer in spices and liquor and owned slaves. Many of the Sephardic Jews who came to New Jersey in the 18th century either were relatives, in-laws or business acquaintances of Aaron Louzada.
By the year 1800 about seventy five Jewish names had surfaced as residents or traveling peddlers in New Jersey. At least one third were Sephardic. One important Sephardic Jew was Daniel Nunez of Piscataway who was known to have sat as a Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County Quarter Sessions Court in 1722.
Another important Sephardic personality of the early years in New Jersey was David Naar. His family was from the West Indies and had settled in the United States in 1843. Naar became a judge of the Court of the Common Pleas in Elizabeth and later served that city as mayor. He rose to national prominence and served Presidents Buchanan and Polk. He then combined his political interests with journalism and education. He published a newspaper and was instrumental in developing the first public school and public library in Trenton.
The second wave of immigration from the Mediterranean and the Balkan areas brought to New Jersey most of the Sephardic families who are represented in the State today. These families settled in New Brunswick and Atlantic City. In addition, about twenty years ago, a group of Sephardic Jews, most of them Syrian Jews from Brooklyn, settled in Monmouth county.
The Sephardic Jews who settled in New Brunswick, between the years 1912 and 1924, constituted about one third of the Jewish community of 2,500. It was a very splintered group. Many in this group found employment in Johnson and Johnson, U.S. Rubber and Michelin Tire. The latter was a French company, and because many of the Sephardim spoke French, it was an attraction as a workplace. Several Sephardic Jews opened grocery stores, small restaurants, cabinet making businesses and shoe stores. Some of the earlier Sephardic organizations in the New Brunswick area include the Oriental Brotherhood, Sephardic Brotherhood, and the Mutual Aid Society of Etz Ahaim, which was organized in 1913. The first efforts to form a congregation began in 1926 and in 1929 Congregation Etz Ahaim was established. Elie Benozio was the first president and Eliyahu Nahama was the spiritual leader. The congregation moved to its current location in Highland Park in 1962.
The original members of the Atlantic City community came from many areas in the Middle East. Several were Syrians. Many worked for, or ran auction houses or galleries on the Boardwalk. The first effort to start a congregation began in 1910. Remnants of that congregation remained until the 1980's, but it is no longer in existence today. Only a handful of Sephardim reside in the area now.
The group that moved to Monmouth County in the 1970's came from a Syrian enclave in Brooklyn, their ancestors having immigrated from Aleppo and Damascus at the turn of the 20th century. Members of this group were better educated than the immigrants who moved to New Brunswick and Atlantic City. This group moved to Deal, West End, Bradley Beach and Elberon and showed a rapid growth. In 1989 450 families lived in this area, with the number increasing to 1,350 families in the summer (the numbers are much higher now). They also established several synagogues, the first ones being the Synagogue of Deal and Magen David Synagogue, as well as a Hebrew day school. A kollel has also been established in recent years. It is a vibrant and close-knit Sephardic community today.
About the Author
Ruth Marcus Patt served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of Central Jersey. She had researched the Jewish history of New Jersey and Middlesex County in particular. She is the author of several monographs about the history of Jews and Jewish life and has authored two books. She is also the recipient of many awards, such as the Award of Recognition from the New Jersey Historical Commission in 1981 and Author Award from the 21st Annual New Jersey Writers Conference in 1988. Ruth Marcus Patt died in 2015.
This article was first published in 1992 in The Journal - a publication by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County (now the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey) in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The article is condensed from the Pamphlet The Sephardim of New Jersey, by Ruth Marcus Patt. For more information about the history of Jewish life in New Jersey and to obtain a copy of the pamphlet ($2), please contact the Jewish Historical Society of Central Jersey, 228 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901. Telephone (732)249-4894.