One of the most distinct periods of immigration in U.S. history occurred between the years of 1880 and 1920, when imperial tyranny targeting Jewish populations in czarist Russia heightened to potential annihilation. During the 40-year period, around one-third of the entire Jewish population of Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine escaped their brutally oppressive countries and cultures as these immigrants reached for a better life with America as a promised land.
In late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, progroms—state-sponsored terrorism against Jews—saw the incineration of whole Jewish villages and neighborhoods. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered by soldiers and public mobs alike as the brutality and isolation intensified in urban ghettos and small villages called shtetls.
In addressing the problem, an 1898 story in the Atlantic reports on a Jewish community meeting where one leader on the committee is quoted as saying the U.S. is the solution for escaping historical violence and repression. “In the great republic is our redemption from the brutalities and ignominies to which we are subjected in this our birthplace. In America we shall find rest; the stars and stripes will wave over the true home of our people. To America, brethren! To America!”
The call to flee oppression to find freedom in America was a necessity, according to the story that was reported by Abraham Calhan. “There is no hope for Israel in Russia,” Calhan quoted the speaker as saying. “The salvation of the downtrodden people lies in other parts, in a land beyond the seas, which knows no distinction of race or faith, which is a mother to Jew and Gentile alike.”
As Eastern European Jews flooded the country—usually filtering through Ellis Island—a number of distinct characteristics of these immigrants emerged. While many immigrants of the time came to the United States with the idea of making their fortune and then returning home, it was literally unheard of that Eastern European Jews return to their homeland.
Additionally, prominent characteristic of the group was that these immigrants did not choose to fan out across the country and overwhelmingly stayed in New York City. This is attributed to cultural traditions of the close knit Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as well as to the strict religious practices required by Orthodox Judaism.
Read more about Jewish immigration to the U.S. here.