It is the oldest of three Manhattan graveyards currently maintained by Congregation Shearith Israel (Hebrew, "Remnant of Israel") , the oldest Jewish congregation in North America.
Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During this entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to the congregation.
In September 1654 shortly before the Jewish New Year, twenty-three Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin arrived in New York.
|St Thomas Synagogue|
One group of twenty-three Jews, after a series of unexpected events, landed in New Amsterdam. They were not welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who did not wish to permit Jews to settle there.
However, these pioneers fought for their rights and won permission to remain. (...)
in July, 1655 Jewish settlers applied to the Dutch authorities for permission to purchase a parcel of land. They were to use this land as an exclusive burial place for their dead. They were denied the privilege, and once again, on February 22, 1656, appealed “that consent may be given” for the purchase.
In 1664 the British took New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. The Jews were accorded more civil rights. By 1706 they had organized their own congregation, Shearith Israel.
The Cemetery was originally outside City limits . There was a dense forest extending for two miles towards what is today Chatham Square in Chinatown. Not until 1701, according to one authority, was the burial place amortized and did then go into the exclusive possession of New Amsterdam Jewry.
The oldest decipherable inscription in the Cemetery is over the grave of Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita, interred in 1683.
In 1856, the Congregation Shearith Israel was compelled, upon the City’s request, to remove 256 graves to its cemetery on Twenty-first Street, a little west of Sixth Avenue, which was purchased in 1829.
Now buried on Chatham Square cemetery are 18 Jewish Revolutionary-War era soldiers and patriots, as well as the first American-born rabbi, Gershom Mendes Selxas.
Every year on the Sunday preceding Memorial Day Weekend, the congregation conducts a memorial service in their honor, planting American flags at their stones and reciting the memorial prayer. The service is accompanied by a US Color Guard and it is a truly stirring event.