Although immigrants from around the world came through Ellis Island, the immigration station in the harbor of New York* had a distinctive impact specifically on Jews and on American-Jewish history. As January 1 is the anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island as an immigration center, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of this famous island.

Ellis Island is named after Samuel Ellis, the man who last owned the island before it was acquired by the U.S. government in 1808. When the government purchased the island, however, it had basically been abandoned. The defense ministry controlled the island until 1890, when it was designated to serve as an immigration station.

Preparing Ellis Island for its new role required the government to expand the island, which it did via landfills. A beautiful Georgian building was erected, and the first immigrant (followed by 700 more newcomers) was welcomed on January 1, 1892. In June 1897, however, a fire destroyed all of the wooden buildings on the island – thankfully no lives were lost. The new brick compound, which still stands today, opened in December 1900.

Arriving at Ellis Island was a grand, exciting and terrifying experience for many of the immigrants, who mostly spoke no English. The immigrants were scrutinized for any health issues, and, quite often, the relatives they were expecting did not come to meet them. For Jewish immigrants, some relief came with the establishment of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1902, who sent representatives to help the new arrivals. In 1911, HIAS was permitted to set up a kosher kitchen on Ellis Island, which was particularly helpful to the Orthodox Jewish immigrants.

Isolationist policies following World War I limited the number of incoming immigrants. During World War II, part of Ellis Island was used as an enemy detention center. Ellis Island was taken out of service after 1954.

*Determined to be legally New Jersey by the Supreme Court in 1998.

This Treat was last posted on January 1, 2015. 

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