The first Jew to visit Virginia may have been a sailor on one of the expeditions along the coastline. The first documented resident was Joachim Gans, whose name is also spelled Ganz, Gaunse, and in other ways.
He was born in Prague, and came to England in 1581 to work with copper mining. He joined the Ralph Lane expedition and reached "Virginia" in 1585.
Gans had been recruited to join the Roanoke Island colony for his technical skills in identifying ore and smelting metal, since the English saw Native Americans wwearing items made from copper. His expertise with metal was more important to Sir Walter Raleigh than his religion, though he may not have advertised his beliefs at the time. Ralph Lane did not record that he had a Jew among his colonists, so Gans may have behaved like all the others during religious services.
Thomas Harriot and Joachim Gans built a science lab on the island, where Harriot examined plants. Gans tested copper obtained from the local residents and smelted ore samples, hoping to identify copper, gold, or other minerals that would make the colony profitable. In the winter of 1585-86, he traveled north to Lynnhaven Bay and the Elizabeth River as the colonists sought to find a better location and the source of the Native American copper.
Gans' metallurgical operations may have been constrained because some of the equipment he brought did not make it to the island. If he brought an assay oven for smelting samples at temperatures as high as 2,000°F, it and other heavy items were tossed overboard when Sir Richard Grenville's flagship Tyger ran aground while trying to navigate through an Outer Banks inlet to Roanoke Sound.
In 1586, he returned to England when the colonists hopped on the visiting ships of Sir Francis Drake and abandoned Roanoke Island. Gans was not part of the "Lost Colony," the people who arrived in 1587 and were not seen again.
The science workshop was excavated by archeologists in the 1990's, who found evidece of crucibles, traces of molten materials, and bricks from the furnace Gans built to smelt samples. The site is preserved today by the National Park Service at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
The first Jew to live in Virginia was harassed later in 1589, when he was arrested in Bristol and admitted to being a circumcised Jew. A trial was planed in London, but apparently Gans' connections with influential people enabled him to avoid it.1
In 2020, the top leaders in the General Assembly were Jewish. In 2008, Dick Saslaw was elected as the Minority Leader of the Democrats in the State Senate. After that party won a majority in the 2019 elections, he became Majority Leader.
At the start of 2019, Democrats in the House of Delegates elected Del. Eileen Filler-Corn to serve as the first Jewish Minority Leader. When Democrats won control of the House of Delegates in the November elections, she became the first Jew as well as the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House.2
What the two leaders shared in common, and though the Democratic Party controlled both houses, did not overcome the institutional rivalries between the House of Delegates and the State Senate. The two houses in the legislature struggled to adopt common positions for marijuana, criminal justice reform and regulating electric utilities. An experienced commentator for the Richmond Times-Dispatch compared the Democratic legislative majority to "a large, argumentative Jewish family."3
1. Gary C. Grassl, "Gans, Joachim," NCpedia, 1986, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/gans-joachim; "Archaeologists start a new hunt for the fabled Lost Colony of the New World," Science, June 6, 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/archaeologists-start-new-hunt-fabled-lost-colony-new-world; Gary C. Grassl, "Joachim Gans of Prague: The First Jew in English America," American Jewish History, Volume 86, Number 2 (June 1998), p.203, http://doi.org/10.1353/ajh.1998.0011; "Colony Site Yields Relics Of Science," New York Times, February 4, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/04/science/colony-site-yields-relics-of-science.html (last checked June 7, 2018)
2. "Filler-Corn, Saslaw see blue in Virginia," Washington Jewish Week, January 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/filler-corn-saslaw-see-blue-in-virginia/ (last checked March 4, 2021)
3. "Schapiro: Oy vey! Democrats fighting. What else is new?," Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 4, 2021, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/schapiro-oy-vey-democrats-fighting-what-else-is-new/article_d6f8b1a3-d29a-5474-92ab-2b1ce302815b.html (last checked March 4, 2021)