Before the 19th century very few European Jews emigrated to America. It was estimated that in 1840 the Jewish population was around 15,000. In the 1850s an increasing number of German Jews began arriving in the United States. This included several who became successful in business such as Joseph Seligman (banking), Solomon Loeb (banking), August Belmont (banking), Isidor Straus (department stores), Paul Warburg (banking), Jacob Schiff (banking) and Otto Kahn (banking). A survey in 1890 revealed that about a half of the German Jewish population in the United States were in business.
Issac Meyer Wise, who arrived from Germany in 1846, founded the paper The Israelite and the Hebrew Union College for the training of rabbis. Other important religious figures that arrived at this time included David Einhorn (1809-1879), Samuel Adler (1809-1891) and Bernhard Felsenthal (1822-1908). By 1880 there were 270 synagogues in the United States.
After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 there was a wave of pogroms in southern Russia against the Jewish community. This led to a large increase in Jews leaving Russia. Of these, more than 90 per cent settled in the United States, the country that was now regarded as their goldene medine (golden land). These arrivals were not always welcomed by Jews already in America who feared that they might stimulate an increase in anti-Semitism. Joseph Seligman, the highly successful banker, later recalled how he was refused accommodation in hotels which previously had accepted him.
Research suggests that over two-thirds of the Jews settled in New York, Chicago, Boston and Pennsylvania. Most were unskilled and were forced to accept low-paid jobs in factories and mines. They became especially prominant in the rapidly expanding garment industry. The long hours, low wages and insanitary conditions in this industry gave it the name "sweated labour". Sidney Hillman became the leading trade union leader in the garment industry and eventually became president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).
Large numbers of Russians settled in the Lower East Side of New York. One trade union activist, Abraham Cahan, emerged as the leader of this group and in 1897 Cahan founded the Jewish Daily Forward and turned it into a mass-circulation daily. Cahan played a role in persuading a large number of Jews to join the American Socialist Party. Others, such as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer, became involved in the emerging anarchist movement.
There were several very important books written about Russian immigrant life during this period. This included Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) by Abraham Cahan and the The Promised Land (1912) by Mary Antin.
Russian immigrants also contributed a great deal to the development of science and industry. Important figures included the aircraft engineers, Igor Sikorsky and Alexander de Seversky, the biologist, Selman Waksman and the pioneer in the development of television, Vladimir Zworykin.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmeras his attorney general. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia in 1917, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but 248 other people were deported to Russia. This included a large number of Jews including Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer.
Persecution of Jews by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s once again increased a desire to emigrate to the United States. Arrivals included Albert Einstein, Alfred Adler, Edward Teller, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Berthold Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler.
In 1880 the Jewish population of the United States was about 250,000. Over the next forty years more than two million eastern European Jews - about one-third of the entire Jewish population there - emigrated to the United States.