Judaism in the United States (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Judaism, a World Religion

There are currently about 18 million Jews throughout the world. The main concentrations are in North America (about 7 million) and Israel (about 4.5 million).

Jewish texts are composed of the Tanakh and the Talmud. The Tanakh corresponds to the Christians’ Old Testament. It is composed of three groups of books

  1. The Torah (or Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
  2. The Nevi’im: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (2), Kings (2), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, Isaiah, Amos.
  3. TheKetuvim (the “Writings”): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles (2).

The Talmud contains stories, laws, medical knowledge, debates about moral choices, etc. Its material comes mainly from two sources:

  1. The Mishnah, six “orders,” including series of laws from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was compiled about 200 CE [Common Era.]
  2. The Gemara (one Babylonian and one Palestinian) includes comments from hundreds of Rabbis from 200-500 CE, explaining The Mishnah with additional historical, religious, legal, sociological, etc. material. It often records many different opinions on a topic without giving a definitive answer.

Forms of Judaism in the Modern Era

There are four major movements in organized American Judaism. They share a fundamental belief that G-d is one and that the Jewish people have a covenant relationship with G-d. They agree that the Torah is the primary holy text which governs that covenant. The four movements observe most of the same holy days and follow the same calendar, with minor deviations. All celebrate the major life cycle ceremonies—circumcision of boys at the age of 8 days, bar or bat mitzvah (coming of age) at 13 (12 for girls in the Orthodox movement), use similar ceremonies for weddings, and use similar prayers for blessings, healing, and mourning. The differences in the four movements are in the degree to which the philosophy of each movement accepts the traditional Jewish observances or law.

Orthodox Judaism is the oldest, most conservative, and most diverse form of Judaism. They observe the Sabbath and holidays carefully, refraining from all business and “work” as defined by the tradition on those days. They observe all holy days as well as the full number of days of all festivals. They observe the dietary laws, which is commonly called “keeping kosher.” Although fewer than 10 percent of American Jews are estimated to be Orthodox, their synagogues represent 40 percent of all U.S. synagogues.

Reform Judaism is a liberal group, using modern forms of worship. This movement started in the 1790’s in Germany and is followed by many American Jews. Most Reform congregations observe shorter multi-day festivals than Orthodox and Conservative. They follow Judaism’s ethical laws, but leave up to the individual the decision whether to follow or ignore the dietary and other traditional laws. Reform Judaism has traditionally stressed social action as an important spiritual activity. Reform Judaism has 26 percent of all synagogues.

Conservative Judaism began in the mid-19th century as a reaction against the Reform movement. Conservative Jews are expected by their rabbis to observe the dietary laws, the Sabbath, the full number of days of all festivals, and all holy days. It is a main-line movement midway between Orthodox and Reform. Conservatives have 23 percent of the synagogues.

Reconstructionist Judaism is similar to Conservative Judaism, but a little more liberal in both practice and theology. This movement was started in recent years by Mordecai Kaplan in an attempt to unify and revitalize the religion. Reconstructionists accept tradition because they believe it will enhance their lives. They try to balance American culture with the Jewish tradition. This group combined with other small groups within Judaism account for only 3 percent or less of synagogue affiliations.

[Statistics are reported by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance as gathered from a survey conducted in 2001 for the 2002 edition of the American Jewish Year Book. It is reported that the total number of U.S. synagogues has increased from 2,851 in 1936 to 3,727 in 2001.]

Membership Statistics

Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) 896 houses of worship 1,500,000 members
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America 800 houses of worship 1,075,000 members
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism 762 houses of worship 1,500,000 members
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation 100 houses of worship 65,000 members

The website of Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance gives an overview of membership of spiritual and religious groups in the United States. It takes its statistics from a report in 1997 from the US Society and Values magazine which used data from the Plauralism Project at Harvard University. They reported:

“There are 3.8 million religiously active Jews (1.5%); an additional 2 million regard themselves as cultural or ethnic Jews.”


1840 Immigrant rabbis began to assume the pulpits of Jewish synagogues.
1873 The Union of American Hebrew Congregations was formed.
1875 Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati.
1880 Beginning in the 1880s, pogroms directed against the Jews of Russia caused young Eastern European Jews to flee, most often immigrating to America.
1900 The Jewish population in America numbered about a million Jews, the third largest Jewish population center in the world (following Russia and Austria-Hungary.) About half of the country’s Jews lived in New York City, making it the world’s most populous Jewish community.
1917 The Jewish Welfare Board established centers for Jewish servicemen in the United States and overseas.
1924 Between 1900 and 1924, another million and three quarters Jews immigrated to American shores.
1930 Jews formed about 3 ½ percent of the American population, in contrast to smaller numbers of either Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Anti-Semitism peaked during this decade.
1948 The Zionist movement was a response within all Jewish traditions to centuries of Christian persecution. Their initial goal was create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The state of Israel was formed on May 18, 1948. The State of Israel became the focal point of American Jewish life and philanthropy.
1960s Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States.
1967 The Six-Day War of June 1967 struck deep emotional chords among American Jews, many of whom greatly increased financial support to Israel and some moving there to make it their permanent home.
1972 The ordination of women as Jewish rabbis began.
2000 Jewish population comprised a smaller percentage of America’s total population than it had in 1920.

Judaism in the 19th and 20th Centuries in the U.S.

The first Jews to arrive in America, in colonial times, were the Spanish Sephardic Jews. Today in the United States, the great majority of Jews are descended from the millions who emigrated from Russia, Poland, and other eastern European countries from 1880 to 1920. During those years, one third of all the Jews in Eastern Europe sought asylum in America.

Colonial Jews never exceeded one tenth of one percent of the American population. Prior to the Civil War, the primary Jewish immigrants were German Jews. The Civil War divided Jews much as it did the nation as a whole. Jews in the North had to fight for their right to have a Jewish army chaplain. Moreover, under General Order No. 11, published December 17, 1862, all Jews were expelled from General Grant’s military department; however within three weeks, the order was revoked by President Lincoln.

For some time following the American Civil War, Germany began to grant civil and political equality to the Jews with the result that German Jewish immigration decreased. During this period, most Jewish immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe—especially Poland, Russia, and Romania. During the 1880s and 1890s Jews experiencing persecution in Russia flooded American shores. These were religiously traditional Jews; they spoke Yiddish, the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews (a dialect of High German that includes some Hebrew elements). Not unlike the Eastern Orthodox immigrants in settlement patterns, Jewish immigrants made their new lives primarily in the Northeast and along the West Coast. New York had the highest concentration of Jewish immigrants.

The 19th century Jewish immigrants established a culture that blended Jewish traditions and American ideals. The entrepreneurial skills of simple peddlers and merchants of the eastern European Jews blossomed in America, and Jewish immigrants prospered across America...

Even larger numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1924. However, this era of mass Jewish immigration to the United States gradually ended after World War I. Restrictive quotas stemmed the human tide of immigrants. For the first time in many decades, the majority of American Jews would be American born.

Anti-Semitism peaked in America in the years between World War I and II. This served to encourage interdependence between Jews of different ethnic background. But at the same time, there occurred a three-part religious division among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.

World War II brought its terrible destruction of the major European centers of Judaism. Consequently, in 1945, America was unrivaled as the largest, richest, and politically most important Jewish community in the world. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 encouraged some American Jews to migrate there. In the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States. By the end of the 20th century, however, the American Jewish community comprised a smaller percentage of America’s total population than it had in 1920. Even so, the United States today has the largest Jewish population in the world.

Beliefs and Practices

Jewish practices include:

  • Observation of the Sabbath as a day of rest (starting at sundown on Friday evening)
  • All areas of life are governed by the strict discipline of Jewish law
  • Celebration of annual festivals
-Passover (Pesach)
-Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year)
-Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)
-Sukkoth (the Feast of Booths)
-Hanukkah (the Feast of Lights)
-Purim (the Feast of Lots)
-Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks)

The local congregation governs its synagogue which normally is led by a rabbi chosen by the congregation. A rabbi is a teacher who has been educated thoroughly in Jewish law and tradition.

Any adult male who has sufficient knowledge can lead religious services. In reform and some conservative congregations, a woman can also preside.

On their 13th birthday, boys reach the status of Bar Mitzvah. They are then recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws. They are allowed to lead a religious service; they are counted in the minyan, a quota of men necessary to perform certain parts of religious services. They can sign contracts and can testify in religious courts. Theoretically, they can marry, although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the proper age for marriage. Girls reach Bat Mitzvah on their 12th birthday.


Family history researchers are reminded to investigate the genealogically relevant collections held by the American Jewish Historical Society in New York. They include:

  • Orphanage records
  • Immigrant aid organizations
  • Military records
  • Court records
  • Personal papers
  • Some synagogue collections

Cyndi's List

On Cyndi’s List of Jewish references, give particular attention to the growing links for Records: Census, Cemeteries, Land, Obituaries, Personal, Taxes and Vital (born, married, died and buried). Some of these linked sites have extractions or transcriptions of actual records. Studying these sites gives the family researcher an opportunity to become acquainted with the many kinds of Jewish records that might be available at an archive or a local synagogue.

Gary Mokotoff

One of the finest resources available for family historians is an article entitled “Jewish Research,” by Gary Mokotoff. It was first published in the March/April 2001 issue of Ancestry Magazine. Mr. Mokotoff reminds us that:

  • since there is no Jewish ritual comparable to baptism, there are no synagogue records of births.
  • since they do not post banns, there are no synagogue records of marriages.
  • nevertheless, there are within the Jewish religion and culture clues and even documents that can assist in genealogical research. Occasionally an archive will have a record of circumcision (mohel). It is disappointing to learn that the bar/bat mitzvah is of little genealogical value.

Other Types of Records

The religious contract (ketubah) when a Jewish couple marries is a family document, not a synagogue record. It is signed by the bride and groom, the rabbi, and two witnesses.

Jews must obtain a religious divorce (get) as well as a secular divorce, but it has minimal genealogical value.

Jewish tombstones may be a rich source of genealogical information, containing more information than on Christian tombstones.

Memorial plaques to the deceased (yahrzeit) at synagogues contain several pieces of genealogical information.

A Response Concerning Orthodox Records

An archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society, shares information and helpful comments:

Membership Records? Yes
Birth Records? Yes
Marriage Records? Yes
Death, Burial, Obituaries? Yes
Biographical Sketches for Leaders? Yes

“Additional types of records may include orphanage records, military records, immigration records, and circumcision records.” She then adds, “There are many ways to access these records. In addition to state and city archives, public libraries, there are state and Jewish historical societies, Jewish genealogy societies, and private Jewish research organizations (such as YIVO and Leo Baeck) that hold collections related to family research. Cemeteries often keep good records, the State Health Dept. keeps vital records and may have records of hospitals (hospitals may also keep records), and the NY State Insurance Dept. may have records pertaining to landsmanshaften (mutual benefit societies formed from townsmen in the old country)."

"Many social agencies may not have donated their records yet, and may have their own archives. The Red Cross is an example of an organization that does research for patrons.”

Headquarters/ Repositories

In addition to the many addresses suggested below, the American Jewish Historical Society has an online directory of societies with listings by state:

American Jewish Archives
3101 Clifton Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45220

American Jewish Historical Society
15 West 16th Street
New York, New York 10011

American Jewish Historical Society
101 Newbury Street
Boston, MA 02116

Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies
PO Box 50245
Palo Alto, CA 94303

Avotaynu, Inc.br>155 N. Washington Ave.
Bergenfield, NJ 07621

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Beit Devora
101 Greenwood Ave, Suite 430
Jenkintown, PA 19046

Leo Baeck Institute
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

Union of American Hebrew Congregations
633 3rd Ave.
New York, NY 10017

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America
11 Broadway
New York, NY 10004

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
820 Second Ave, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10017

YIVO Institute
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

Judaism Websites

American Jewish Historical Society (New York, NY)

American Jewish Historical Society - Collections

American Jewish Historical Society - Jewish Historical Societies in the U.S. and Abroad

Center for Jewish History (New York, NY)

Cyndi’s List - Jewish


Judaism 101

National Humanities Center - American Jewish Experience through the Nineteenth Century: Immigration and Acculturation

National Humanities Center - American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance report gathered from a survey conducted in 2001 for the 2002 edition of the American Jewish Year Book.

Spertus - Chicago Jewish History

Wikipedia - Jewish Religious Movements


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.