“This month, we celebrate the enduring heritage of Jewish Americans, whose values, culture and contributions have shaped our character as a Nation. For generations, the story of the Jewish people – one of resilience, faith and hope in the face of adversity, prejudice and persecution – has been woven into the fabric of our Nation’s story.” – President Biden
American Jews are an integral part of U.S. history and culture. Since before the nation’s founding, Jewish immigrants contributed their blood, sweat, toil and tears to build the American Dream. Many, with only pennies in their pockets, came to America with the hope of building a better life for their future generations. They believed that they had a shared responsibility in building and protecting a nation in its infancy. These were the early roots of Jewish American patriotism.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month – recognizing the enduring contributions and innovations Jews make to American culture, education, science and technology. The month-long celebration was first officially recognized in 2006, when President George W. Bush issued a formal proclamation honoring America’s Jews. This year, all 26 Republican governors hailed the “impact of the American Jewish people” on the nation.
The patriotism of American Jews was proven on the battlefields of the American Revolution, the Civil War and in all foreign conflicts. There are 2,500 Jews buried at Arlington National Cemetery, providing silent testimony. Legendary author Mark Twain questioned Jewish patriotism until he was presented with statistics showing Jewish participation throughout American military history. Twain acknowledged that “I was ignorant” and that Jews served at a higher rate than Christians. Union General Oliver Otis Howard praised his Jewish officers as being “of the bravest and best,” and “intrinsically there are no more patriotic men to be found in the country than those who claim to be of Hebrew descent.”
Jews marched arm-in-arm with African American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave their lives in support of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Decades before, Sears department store pioneer Julius Rosenwald teamed up with civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to fund schools for African American children in the south. The eponymous Rosenwald School project built more than 5,000 schools, vocational centers and teacher homes in the early 1900s. His philanthropic work provided educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of African American children.
American Jews have made important cultural contributions throughout U.S history. Composer Israel “Irving” Berlin wrote God Bless America while serving in the army during World War I and later the classic White Christmas. Upon his passing, President George H. W. Bush hailed him as “a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation.”
There are many notable entertainers who have captured the attention of Americans: legendary escape artist Harry Houdini; Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; singers Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan; actors Scarlett Johansson and Adam Sandler; Jeopardy! host Mayim Bialik; and Star Trek actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Inspired by an aspect of Jewish High Holiday services, Nimoy created the universally recognizable “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute. 🖖
Polio is no longer a threat to American children because of the contributions of Jewish doctors, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Businesswoman Estée Lauder co-founded the cosmetics brand bearing her name. Baseball hall-of-famer Sandy Koufax garnered national attention when he observed the holy day of Yom Kippur rather than pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series.
But today’s Jews face rising antisemitism and even deadly attacks. Unfortunately, as President Biden proclaimed: “We have witnessed violent attacks on synagogues, bricks thrown through windows of Jewish businesses, swastikas defacing cars and cemeteries, Jewish students harassed on college campuses and Jews wearing religious attire beaten and shot on streets. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are rampant online, and celebrities are spouting antisemitic hate.”
Violent attacks against Jewish community centers date back to at least 1957 with the discovery of a bomb before it exploded in an Alabama synagogue. Swastikas continue to be painted on synagogues and a Las Vegas high school student recently carved a swastika into the back of a Jewish autistic classmate. Many Jewish students feel unsafe at universities and Orthodox Jews were the main target of anti-Jewish assaults in 2022. Jew-hating bigots continue to spread hateful content online and celebrities – including Kanye “Ye” West and Kyrie Irving – helped mainstream anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
Jews, like many other immigrants, fled persecution, foreign wars and famines for a fresh start in a new land. They now must fight for their right to exist in the land they helped build and defend. Jewish American Heritage Month aims to promote greater understanding and appreciation of Jewish history and culture, as well as to recognize the many challenges that American Jews have faced and overcome.
In a letter to the nation’s first synagogue, President George Washington wrote: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”