Those immigrants who successfully passed the authorities’ physical examination, had their passports stamped and were allowed to board a barge that took them to the landing area at the tip of Manhattan Island. The long trip was over—Europe was a memory, their problems and poverty, they thought, were ended. But the streets of America were not paved with gold, and living conditions were not much better than in Europe.
Five of every six Russian Jews settled in urban communities, clustering with other Russian and Eastern European Jews, in decaying and congested areas. For most, Manhattan’s slum section became their new home.
In the city of the New World you find there Jews born to plenty, whom the new conditions have delivered to the clutches of penury; Jews reared in the straits of need, who have risen to prosperity: Good people morally degraded in the struggle for success amid an unwonted environment: Moral outcasts lifted from the mire purified and interbred with self-respect: Educated men and women with their intellectual polish tarnished in the inclement weather of diversity; ignorant sons of toil grown enlightened; in fine, people with all sorts of antecedents, tastes, habits and inclinations.
The old German section of New York’s Lower Side was the area of primary settlement for most Eastern European Jews. They were directed to the area by members of the immigrant aid societies or came at the behest of friends, relatives or employers. The houses were old and run-down; apartments were overcrowded; the streets were dirty, unsafe and unhealthy. Although the ghetto was a horrible place to live, its location put the immigrant at the very heart of the city’s garment industry.
The immigrants found that though they were not persecuted in the United States, they encountered various degrees of anti-Semitism. Henry Adams, steeped in the prejudices of his patrician class, expressed how intense these feelings were, saying, “the Russian Jews and other Jews will completely control the finances and government of this country in ten years or they all will be dead. The hatred with which they are regarded . . . ought to be a warning to them. The people of this country won’t be starved and driven to the wall by Jews who are guilty of all crimes, tricks, and wiles.”
Not only were non-Jews leery of the new immigrants, but the older Jewish community saw the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe as a problem of great magnitude.
At first the leaders of Jewish organizations were severely alarmed, as they considered it their duty to care for the needy of New York City only—not of the world. They approved of the United States’ protective immigration acts of 1882; they sent letters of protest to European leaders and to newspapers urging more discrimination in the selection of immigrants.
Unable to stop the flow of immigrants to the United States, the leaders of New York’s Jewish community took constructive measures to help the immigrants. Agents of the Hebrew Benevolent Society were placed at Ellis Island to assist the newly arrived immigrants; they opposed the deportation of dependents; they established temporary shelters; they developed other means to assist the immigrant’s adjustment to the New World.