The history of American Jewish immigration begins in September 1654, when twenty-three Jewish men, women, and children arrived in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City. Historians have identified three periods of Jewish immigration to the United States: Sephardic (beginning 1654); German (beginning 1840s); and Eastern European. The majority of our collections come from the Eastern European period of immigration, between 1880 and 1924, when restrictive immigration quotas enacted with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 hindered immigration efforts. However, there are also collections that focus on the plight of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States, when multiple Jewish organizations advocated for the rights of Soviet Jews to immigrate to the U.S. and Israel.
Below are the JHC’s archival collections related to immigration and immigration history. Click on a title to see an overview of the collection, view the collection’s finding aid (guide to the collection and its contents), and, if applicable, view the digitized collection on our Digital Library & Archives.
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A note about the collections listed below: most of our collections have materials pertaining to immigration. The list below are those collections, particularly for personal papers, where the primary subject is immigration. To view a list of all of the JHC's collections and finding aids, click here.
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Abraham Alpert immigrated to the United States, and in 1886 settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He learned English while attending night school and would later become an internationally known writer. Outside of his writing, he also rose to become a prominent Jewish figure and leader, not just in Boston but nationally, as well. One newspaper wrote that there was not a synagogue on the Atlantic Coast that had not heard Alpert talk. He helped organize the Boston branch of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and was active there for over 40 years, aiding over 2000 immigrants in receiving citizenship. This collection contains materials pertaining to Abraham Alpert’s role as a public figure in Boston’s Jewish community, including correspondence, news clippings, a scrapbook and programs.
To address community concerns surrounding the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in primary Jewish neighborhoods, the Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized an interim committee in 1938 to examine interfaith cooperation in Boston. After this committee dissipated, Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized the Central Advisory Committee during World War II. This committee, led by Isaac Seligson, established the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston in 1949, headed by Robert Segal. The Council was comprised of representatives from a number of central Jewish organizations in the area. The Council continually modified its goals and purpose to reflect the changing political and economic landscape. After World War II, focus shifted to include Jewish representation in non-sectarian community or public groups, civil rights, community relations, and fund solicitation practices. Throughout the 1950s, and 1960s, committee work also addressed religious liberties, intercultural education, Israel and the Middle East, civil liberties, immigration, legislation, and discrimination. In the 1970s, council committees continued to focus on Middle East affairs, Church and State, human rights and Jewish concerns, as well as Soviet Jewry, media, and the Boston Holocaust Memorial. Presently, the Council, now known as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), focuses on continuing the tradition of mobilizing the Jewish community around issues of social justice and support for Israel and Jewish people around the globe. Throughout its history, JCRC advocated for labor rights and worked with various labor organizations, including the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish National Workers Alliance, and Workmen’s Circle.
Percy Brand (1908-1985) was a violinist by profession and Holocaust survivor. Born in Liepaja, Latvia on April 2, 1908, he began playing violin at the age of ten. In 1941, when the Germans took control of Latvia and other Baltic countries, Brand was concertmaster of the Riga Latvian Symphony Orchestra. After the SS Einsatzgruppen units occupying Latvia killed his first wife and two children, Brand was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Playing the violin saved his life during the Holocaust. Brand and his second wife, Gertrude, immigrated to the United States and moved to Boston in 1949, where Brand became a well-known radio and television performer. He died on August 8, 1985, at the age of 77. This collection contains papers and photographs of Percy Brand, chronicling his professional life as a violinist in Boston. Mainly composed of programs and newspaper articles of his performances, the collection has miscellaneous files with name cards, memos, correspondence, and Brand's artwork in pencil, crayon, and watercolor. Also included is the oversized music stand he used when he performed.
The Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Boston, Massachusetts is the oldest federated Jewish philanthropy in the United States. The current incarnation of CJP was formed in 1960, when two separate federated philanthropies – the Combined Jewish Appeal and Associated Jewish Philanthropies – merged to create a single organization dedicated to serving the needs of Boston’s Jewish community. CJP’s records contain the history of several other organizations, from the forerunners of the current Federation to the Jewish institutions supported by CJP. Their beginnings can be traced to the founding of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association (UHBA) in 1864 at the Pleasant Street Synagogue (now Temple Israel). This collection contains meeting minutes, correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, financial documents and ledgers, appeal information, publicity, programs, brochures and other written documents relating CJP’s history.
This collection contains personal documents belonging to Celia and Mauricio Dulfano, a Jewish scholarly couple who emigrated from Argentina to Israel and later to the United States. The collection consists primarily of official documents such as government-issued identity cards and academic certificates that detail their migratory life between the three countries as well as their professional success in the fields of social work and pulmonary medicine, respectively.
The Hebrew Free Loan Society was organized in 1912 to assist those in need of temporary financial relief. Formed in the wake of increasing immigration from Eastern Europe and the proliferation of urban poverty, the Society also became a constituent of the Federation of Jewish Charities. These records document the Society’s major operations and include administrative articles, in meeting minutes, and financial reports and statements.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in New York City in the 1880s by the Russian Jewish community of New York in response to the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing the pograms in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe. In 1889, a shelter which was used to house many of the immigrants adopted the name “Hebrew Sheltering House Association.” This organization merged with HIAS in 1909 and by 1914, had branches operating in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The Boston office of HIAS was chartered in 1904 under the leadership of Harris Poorvu, Hyman Pill, Abraham Alpert, Meyer Bloomfield, Max Wyzanski and Samuel L. Bailen. The Boston HIAS operated autonomously from the national office in New York, even after their merger in 1916. HIAS ensured that Jewish immigrants had access to holiday and religious services and kosher food; provided shelter and social services; and assisted immigrants with finding employment and schools, often on short notice. This collection contains the individual case files of immigrants who received assistance from the Boston office of HIAS, ship manifests, tracer correspondence, scrapbooks, passenger lists and photographs. Some later individual case files remain restricted (those dated after 1960) and researchers will require permission from the archivist of AJHS New England Archives in order to view them.
This collection contains the papers of the Society founded in 1938 by recent German-speaking Jewish immigrants to Boston to assist their initial adjustment to the economic, cultural, spiritual, and social life of the American community and subsequently, to provide mutual assistance to its membership and aid to other immigrants. The collection consists of the Society's by-laws (1953, 1956, 1964); handwritten notes with the names of Officers and Directors (1949-1961), plans for cultural and social programs, agenda of Board of Directors' meetings, Officers' meetings, and Annual General Membership meetings (1950-1958); printed announcements of annual meetings (1963-1974); minutes of meetings in English and some in German (1954-1975); printed news bulletins (1956, 1961-1975); printed announcements of social and cultural events (1960-1974); printed matter related to sundry other activities of the Society (1964-1968); and miscellaneous printed announcements (1972-1974).
This collection contains the papers of the Kallin family, with the bulk of the materials chronicling Ralph (Tkach) Kallin’s involvement with Piaterer Feirhein and the Sons of Israel organizations. The materials in this collection include correspondence, photos, newspaper clippings, ephemera, meeting minutes, and flyers.
Leo Levine was born Leizers Levins in Riga, Latvia, on September 30, 1907. He worked as a European war correspondent until the outbreak of World War II. After immigrating to Dorchester circa 1941, Levine wrote freelance newspaper columns about the war, including several that were published in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s The Telegram. Levine was also an artist. Leo Levine died in November 1980. The addendum contains materials about Leo Levine's wife, Sylvia Shlifer Levine, and their daughter, Helena Levine Ryan. Sylvia emigrated from Russia in 1913 with her family to escape the pogroms. A graduate of Radcliffe College, she wrote short stories and poems, many of which are included in this collection. Their daughter, Helena Levine Ryan, is a poet and piano teacher. Her work, as well as photographs of the Levine family and various published and unpublished memoirs, are included in this collection.
The Louisa May Alcott Club was established in November of 1895 at 9 Rochester Street in Boston, Massachusetts. It operated as a self-governing club with 11-17 year old girls. A constitution was set in place that ensured the girls would each pay five cents a week towards the club, but only while they were working. The participating girls were all immigrants or children of immigrants, and classes were held at the building to teach the girls English, cooking and sewing. In 1896/1897 the club moved to a building at 17 Oswego Street. This collection includes a typescript of a description of the club, written by Marion H. Ratshesky (later Ehrlich) under the initials M.H.R.
The Shevitz and Feldman families were first-generation immigrants from Russia who settled in Worcester, Massachusetts in the early 20th century. Wolf Shevitz changed his name to William Marcus upon enlisting in the United States Army and married Minnie Feldman after his discharge. The collection contains William’s service and naturalization records, correspondence between William and Minnie while William was serving in World War I, photographs of the Feldman and Marcus families, and a series of family histories.
The Boston Meretz Relief Association (Boston MRA) was founded by the Jewish immigrants of the town of Meretz, Lithuania, Russia. Officially incorporated in 1893, the Boston MRA was an association that celebrated their Meretz identity and heritage, as well as a humanitarian association dedicated to assist all Meretzers in need, whether in Boston or in Israel. This collection contains constitutions, meeting minutes, financial reports, correspondence, photographs (including photos of the Lithuanian town of Meretz and its inhabitants between the two World Wars), and miscellaneous historical information.
This collection consists of the New England Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry's correspondence, articles, public awareness materials, membership lists and financial statements from 1970-1975. Included are letters to and from government officials and Rabbis who supported the cause. Notices and flyers are comprised of membership meetings, protests, and lectures. Memorabilia, such as bumper stickers and a protest flag (made of paper) are also included in the collection.
This collection contains correspondence, photos, newspapers and clippings, manuscripts, and financial records documenting the life of Harry Spiro following his immigration from the shtetl of Butrimantz in Lithuania, first to Havana, Cuba and then to the United States. Included in the collection are materials relating to his family, his Zionist activism both in Cuba and in the United States, and his building supply business, Best Lumber.
Adolphus Strassman was born in 1850 in Hungary, which was at that time part of the Austria-Hungary Empire. As a child, he immigrated with his family to the United States. They settled in Fall River, Massachusetts, where he lived with his mother, Rosa, stepfather Harry Strassman, and two half-siblings, Etta and Harry. From 1863-1865, he served in the Union Army. He served as a Private in the 2nd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery, Company I, under Captain John D. Parker Junior. His diary includes information about the Battle of Wyse Fork (South West Creek). The collection includes pension and discharge certificates, correspondence, a medallion, wallet with calling cards, photographs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Commendation for services rendered (fragile, restricted), and a diary (1865).
The Student Coalition for Soviet Jewry (SCSJ) was founded in 1977 in response to the arrest of Anatoly B. Shcharansky. Thirteen students from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts went to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress about the problems faced by Jews in the Soviet Union. The numbers of students involved continued to grow, and expanded to include students from other colleges and universities in the United States. The Washington Lobby, which was held every February, provided opportunities for students to meet with members of Congress to educate them on the plight of Soviet Jews and urge them to get involved, either in letter writing campaigns or the adoption of Refuseniks. Students also participated in silent vigils in front of the Soviet embassy and met with representatives of the Soviet Affairs desk at the State Department. This collection includes correspondence, news clippings, newsletters, photographs, informational sourcebooks, and congressional monitoring reports.
The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was founded in 1941 as the Associated Synagogues of Greater Boston (and later the Associated Synagogues of Massachusetts). The documents in this collection describe the proceedings and activities of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, as well as those of its affiliated organizations, including the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Boston, the Kashruth Commission, the Beth Din, and the Jewish Chaplaincy Council. This collection contains meeting minutes, correspondence, flyers, brochures, pamphlets, reports, financial documents, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, directories, and newsletters.
The West End House is a Boys and Girls Club that was established in 1906 by a group of thirty-five boys who were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Their aim was to provide a place where they could meet and work to improve their lives through mental, physical, and moral advancement. The club began in 1903, but was officially established in 1906 following aid received from the Jewish Federation, as well as James and Helen Storrow. From the 1940s-1971 the West End House underwent numerous changes that included a more broad and diverse membership, change in location, and becoming part of the Boys and Girls Club. In 1971, it moved to Allston-Brighton where it continues to serve urban and immigrant youth.
Articles, Webinars, & More
America and the Holocaust
The American Jewish Experience through the Nineteenth Century: Immigration and Acculturation
The Center for Jewish History and Partner Organizations
Eastern European Immigrants in the United States
Essential Readings in American Jewish History
Finding Arrival Records Online
From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America
Jewish Immigration to America: Three Waves
Records Relating to World War II Era Refugees
Timeline in American Jewish History
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum