One of the more inspiring glimpses of tolerance in the United States was the acceptance of the Sephardic Jewish community in the south after the Revolution. Although there is a lack of scholarly research to really identify with census-level precision where and how they thrived, we have compelling evidence in the form of records and a vast variety of documents that they had a presence in the south.
There are several reasons why extensive quantitative analysis on the population of the Sephardic community is severely impeded. First, Jews were welcome in the English-speaking Colonies (although they were refused entry into the French and Spanish colonies). Many came from Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands with many much-needed skills and professions for colonial life. The influx of doctors, lawyers, printers, accountants were instantly welcomed and were permitted to practice their various crafts throughout the south, but they settled primarily in Georgia, Louisiana, and Eastern Texas.
Since they experienced almost immediate acceptance, it wasn’t long before Jewish settlers began to marry the Christian colonists with almost no social resistance. Spouses would often keep their native faiths and have children that were either Jewish or Christian. Many Jewish settlers even converted over time to one of the prominent Christian denominations in their various communities. Both of these practices, marriage and conversion, prevented in many cases clear documentation of the Sephardic presence in the South.
Another factor explaining the lack of thorough population statistics was that Jews in the south lived where they wanted, and in many cases that meant spread out in wide selection of settlements among various cultures. This was in contrast to the Northern practice of Jews choosing to live close together in the cities. So the search for the Sephardic presence in the south wasn’t a focused and limited search, but rather spread out into all neighborhoods and settlements.
History, however, has pointed us in the direction of many prominent Sephardic Jewish-Americans.
Albert Moses Levy was a surgeon for the “New Orleans Grays” (a confederates troop responsible for taking back the Alamo).
Mordecai Sheftal was one of the most powerful leaders of the Revolutionary Era.
South Carolina’s own Francis Salvador was the first Sephardic Jew to be elected to the state legislature. He later became revolutionary War Hero. (The story of his 28-mile ride to warn the soldiers in the frontier of the impending Cherokee invasion rivals the oft-mentioned mission carried out by Paul Revere).
Judah Benjamin, the second Jewish U.S. Senator came to serve in the Cabinet of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Countless others represented this Jewish community in the southeast region of the United States.
This was one example in which the diaspora experience was peaceful and somewhat uneventful between a specific Jewish community and their hosts.
(I must note that the only religious conflict emerged ironically between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in the south, prompting one Protestant Preacher to write: “Some Jews in Savannah complain that the Spanish and Portuguese Jews should persecute the German Jews in a way No Christian would persecute another Christian).