This is a photograph of the American-Jewish labour leader Samuel Gompers. Beneath the photograph is the caption, “Hon. Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor.”
Gompers (1850–1924), was the founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its president from 1886–1894 and again from 1895 until his death in 1924. Gompers was born in London to immigrant parents from Holland. He attended the Jewish Free School but left school when he was 10 to become a cigar maker in order to help his poor family. Working during the day, Gompers studied Hebrew and Talmud at night. In 1863, the Gomper family moved to New York’s Lower East Side in the hope of a better future. Samuel helped his father made cigars in their home. He later became involved in the cigar makers labour union and became its president in 1875. Gompers worked to unify various labour unions and helped found the organisation that became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. Gompers was a role model for many future labour leaders in his struggle for higher wages, shorter working hours, and safer working conditions for workers.
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The Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York – The Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City has traditionally been home to immigrants. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most of the new immigrants to New York settled in the Lower East Side. Between 1880 and 1924, more than 2.5 million Jews immigrated to the United States, 60 percent of whom lived for some period of time in the Lower East Side. They lived in overcrowded tenements, which were low cost apartments, housing large extended families in one apartment and often sharing a bathroom with other tenants. Although by 1920 immigrants from Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine also lived in the Lower East Side, the largest ethnic group was Ashkenazi Jews with a population of 400,000. Yiddish was spoken on the streets and merchants, many using handcarts, lined the streets. Unsafe housing and working conditions led to the rise of political activism and social reform. Many well-known Jews grew up in the Lower East Side such as the labour union leader Samuel Gompers and entertainers like the Marx Brothers, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin. As the Jewish community became more affluent and moved away from the Lower East Side, new immigrant groups moved in. Currently, the Lower East Side has a large number of immigrants from Latin America and China. Although the Jewish population has declined, many of the synagogues, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, still remain.
Jewish Community of the United States – At the time of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, between 1,500 and 2,500 Jews were living in the United States, most of them Sephardi. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a wave of German Jews, largely secular and educated, arrived in the United States. Another wave of immigration arrived from Eastern Europe, a result of pogroms and the difficult economic situation in these countries . Most of these new immigrants were Ashkenazi and spoke mainly Yiddish. They arrived, believing that the United States was a “goldene medina,” a country of gold, but the reality was hard. Many of the newcomers worked as manual labourers in difficult conditions, such as in the sweatshops in New York’s Lower East Side. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more than a million Jews lived in the United States, most of them in New York City. Despite immigration quotas, by 1940 the American Jewish population numbered more the 4.5 million. While the first generation of immigrants lived in close-knit Yiddish-speaking communities, the next generation integrated quickly and, in many cases, assimilated into American society and became prominent in many areas of American life. Today American Jews are extremely influential in American politics, business, academia, and culture. Over the last few decades Jews from many countries, such as Russia, Iran, and Israel, have arrived in the United States. The American Jewish community is the second largest Jewish community in the world, numbering between 5.5 and 7 million people. More than 2 million Jews live in New York, making it the city with the largest Jewish population in the world. Half of American Jews consider themselves religious, and there are many Jewish organisations and institutions in the country.