Did Jews settle in America 100 years earlier?

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told Historic City News that although conventional wisdom traces the history of the Jews in what was to become the U.S. to the first week of September 1654 in New York, a small local interfaith group might be able to prove that Jews accompanied Spaniards to St. Augustine in 1565.

The group has dubbed itself the “St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society” and is currently gathering each Monday at 12:30 p.m. at First Congregation Sons of Israel located at 161 Cordova Street in St. Augustine.

“Small clues were inadvertently left for us to see almost 450 years later,” said Shapiro. “None of them are conclusive and we may have mistaken them; but, we’re looking at the plausibility that Jews came to St. Augustine with Pedro Menendez in 1565, then we’ll go on to explore those possibilities.”

For example, burials uncovered at the original Mission Nombre de Dios are unusual in their orientation — some people buried with their feet toward the altar of the church while others are buried facing east.

No one is quite certain as to why; however, according to comments from the Florida Museum of Natural History, “the presence of two, early historic-period, adjacent Christian burial areas, with different burial orientations is unusual.”

One explanation offered by Society members is that burying the dead facing toward Jerusalem, which would be facing to the east in North American and Spain, is a common Jewish custom.

Another point of interest is that Pedro Menendez was married to Maria Solis; whose brother commanded the fleet that arrived off St. Augustine on August 28, 1565.

Solis could be a name referring to a place in Spain, but the fact is that it is also a common Jewish name. Questions arise as to why Menendez waited until September 8, 1565 to come ashore and claim our region for Spain. Shapiro wonders, “Was he waiting until the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, as described in the Biblical book of Numbers, Chapter 29?”

The Society will also study the Marranos — Jews who went into hiding by outwardly converting to Catholicism under the threat of the Spanish Inquisition. It is seeking the manifests for comparison to known Marrano, Converso and New Christian names.

Shapiro extended an invitation to all Historic City News readers to attend the regular meetings of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society as they explore these clues, and others.

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