Forgotten Downtown Synagogue, Nation's First, Gets Sign of Recognition

The Mill Street Synagogue, the first synagogue in North America, stood in the location of today's 26 South William St. from 1730 until 1820.

Apr. 09, 2019

“Here we are,” announced James Kaplan, president of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, standing before a crowd gathered on a South William Street plaza. “It was 289 years ago today that the Jewish community here held one of the most important ceremonies in the 70 years they’d been in New York.”

That ceremony in 1730, when the city’s Jews numbered an estimated 500, was for the consecration of North America’s first synagogue, the Mill Street Synagogue, which had stood just across the street at today’s 26 South William St. (now a parking garage).

On Monday afternoon, the pioneering house of worship, home to Jews with Spanish and Portuguese roots, was being celebrated again, this time with a street co-naming. A stretch of South William Street, between Mill Street and Broad, is now also known as “Mill Street Synagogue/Seixas Way.”

The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Gershom Mendes Seixas, called “the patriot rabbi,” shares the tribute because he had helped to inspire the Jewish community’s support of the American Revolution.

“We’re celebrating a small street sign on a very narrow street in Manhattan but it’s imbued with a lot of importance,” said Ambrose Richardson, the historical association’s vice president. “It’s about New York and the extended Jewish community establishing roots in America; it’s about religious tolerance and religious freedom which is the foundation of the American Republic. And it’s about the American Revolution.”

With the British capture of the city in 1776, Seixas led his congregation to Philadelphia, returning after Colonial forces retook the city in 1783. His advocacy with Washington led the president to issue his Newport Letter, a call for religious tolerance for Jews and other minorities, considered the most important document in Jewish American history.

The Mill Street Synagogue was torn down in the 1820s when the congregation moved to its second building, on Crosby Street, and its lineage continues as Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side.

“Though historians have written about the importance of the Mill Street Synagogue for centuries there has been no marker to commemorate this sacred place,” said Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who ceremonially unveiled the street sign at South William and Mill Lane. “Today we finally recognize the role of this synagogue’s place in the history of the Jewish people in America as well as the history of a nation that has never been just white, Anglo Saxon Protestant. But from the beginning it has been a mixture of people of different races, religions and national origins.”