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Background on Russian Jewish Americans

 

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland had become the safest place in Europe for Jewish people. Jews had been forced out of England, France, and Spain. Hundreds of thousands had been killed during the Spanish Inquisition. Poland alone had made sure that Jewish people were treated right. This came to an end in 1772. For the next 23 years, Russia, Prussia, and Austria attacked Poland and took much of its land. The largest Jewish community in the world was now under the control of Russia. Because they weren't Slavs, or Christians, Russian Jews faced persecution. Boys who were only 12-years-old were forced to join the Russian army-sometimes for as long as 25 years.

As early as 1648, Cossacks-the czar's army-came into Poland and killed 100,000 Jews. These killings, or massacres, continued to occur over the next 250 years. In 1881, the czar was killed and the Jews were falsely blamed. As a result, more massacres against the Jews occurred between 1881 and 1882. Over one third of the Jewish populations emigrated; 90 percent of them came to America.

Russian Jews arriving in the United States came in through the ports of Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Galveston, Texas. But the largest number came in through the port in New York City. Before 1892, all immigrants went through Castle Gardens, as the early Irish Immigrants did. On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened and was the new place for immigrants to enter. American Jews set up organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help eastern European Jews entering Ellis Island.

In New York City, the Lower East Side became the home to many eastern European Jews. They lived in high buildings, often sharing apartments with other families. Many, including children, worked in the clothing industry, either in factories or at home. The hours were long, from daybreak until long after dark, and the pay was very low. The conditions in the factories and houses were not safe. This caused the Jews to form unions to protect the rights of their workers. In 1900, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union was established. At one of the this union's meetings, a young Jewish worker gave a speech that began a general strike for better pay and working conditions. About 20,000 workers in 500 factories joined the strike. More than 300 employers agreed to the worker's demands.

Adapted from Immigration by Sarah J. Glasscock