New York, NY – Jacques Judah Lyons had a strong tenor voice, one that people were glad to hear in song or speech. One March night, he used it to challenge a crowd in Lower Manhattan. Strangers in a far-off place needed their help, he said, but he knew that members of his audience had principled objections. So many of their own people, they pointed out, other Jews right there in New York, were also destitute and needed assistance.
But were these objections real, he asked, or just “excuses which the lips utter while they are rejected by the heart?”
He was speaking in a synagogue on Crosby Street on March 8, 1847, where he was the chazan, or prayer leader. His subject was relief for people in Ireland who were starving to death in a famine caused by failures of crop and government. By the end of that evening, Mr. Lyons had collected about $200 from the congregation, Shearith Israel, according to an account in the April 1847 issue of The Occident, a monthly on Jewish subjects.
On Sunday, more than 163 years later, the congregation, now at 70th Street and Central Park West, will be visited by the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. She will give thanks for the generosity of Shearith Israel and another New York congregation, Shaaray Tefila, during the famine years. About $1,000 for relief was collected by Jews in New York.
“In some of the conventional histories, the story of the contributions of the Jewish community here has been lost to sight over the years,” said Niall Burgess, the consul general of Ireland in New York.
The story, however, is part of the tradition at Shearith Israel, said Rabbi Hayyim J. Angel, the leader of the congregation. “I knew about this growing up,” Rabbi Angel said. “We speak about it all the time in the synagogue. Chazan Lyons made a fund-raising appeal on behalf of humanity, nothing to do with religion or race.”
The Irish famine, which ran from about 1845 to 1852, was among the first humanitarian crises to be reported in the early days of global media. People and religious groups from around the world responded with donations, as described by Christine Kinealy, a professor at Drew University, in the current issue of Irish America magazine.
The first major contributions came from Calcutta, where about 40 percent of the occupying British Army was Irish-born. The Choctaw Indians, who were displaced from their homelands in the southeastern United States earlier in the 19th century, sent $174 to Ireland. Money was raised from prisoners in Sing Sing, former slaves in the Caribbean, convicts on a prison ship in London, slave churches in the South. Major sources of donations included the Society of Friends and the British Relief Association, led by Lionel de Rothschild.
The famine began with a blight on the leaf of the potato, a staple of Irish tenant farmers, and accelerated through a system of absentee landlords and colonialism. The relief efforts became tangled in bureaucratic snares and rigid commitments by British authorities to free-market solutions. . Some evangelists saw an opportunity to swap soup for the conversion of Catholics.
But there was no such agenda for most of the donors, including Shearith Israel. The congregation was formed in 1654 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been living in Brazil and were driven out. When 23 refugees reached New Amsterdam, the Dutch West Indies Company ordered Peter Stuyvesant to accommodate them, “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation.”
Mr. Lyons became the chazan in 1839. He helped found Jews Hospital, now known as Mount Sinai. His appeal in 1847 on behalf of the Irish bluntly stated that the Jews who gathered on Crosby Street had almost nothing in common with the people on the tiny island. “There is but one connecting link between us and the sufferers,” he said. “That link, my brethren, is humanity.” When Mr. Lyons died in 1877, his niece, Emma Lazarus – author of the “Give me your tired” inscription for the Statue of Liberty – wrote a verse in his honor, “to requite the just man’s service with a just man’s death.”
Mr. Burgess, the Irish government’s senior official in New York, learned about the gifts of the Jews here from a friend who saw some information about them in the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin. Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, connected the Irish officials with the Shearith congregation.
The congregation has continued its charitable works since 1847. The Irish are now among the leading donors of official development aid. Mr. Burgess said that was part of the famine legacy: “A few years back, President McAleese said, ‘We are a first world nation with a third world memory.’ “