Celebrate! May is Jewish American Heritage Month

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of months dedicated to celebrating heritage: February is African American History Month, and National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 – October 15, November marks Native American Heritage Month,  May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and the list goes on…
While it seems to me as though we should be diligent about celebrating our country’s vast cultural diversity every month and not just focusing on one particular group, I have to admit that I find it nice to know that Jewish Americans also get a space on the calendar. (Agree? Disagree? Comment below!).
TC Jewfolk wanted to know more about the celebration so we chatted with Abby Schwartz, JAHM National Coordinator, about Jewish American Heritage Month.
TCJ: How has JAHM changed in the four years since it started? Where do you see it going from here?

AS: JAHM originated in 2006, following resolutions successfully introduced and passed in the House by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and in the Senate by Senator Arlen Specter. May 2006 was declared Jewish American Heritage Month by President George W. Bush, and a national coalition was formed of Jewish cultural and religious organizations. Events and programs took place around the country, but the celebrations were sporadic and there was no central address where information could be gathered or sought.
All of that changed last June when JAHM received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and our corporate sponsor, The Manischewitz Company, came on board. While we still are not quite a household world, people are finding us through the [new JAHM] website, and our list of events is growing daily. There are about 60 events in 14 states and the District of Columbia that are posted on our website to date.
I have learned a great deal in this first year. My efforts after this May is over will be in the education sector – engaging teachers; with recruiting JAHM representatives in every state so that we can broaden our reach into every community; and with social networking – Facebook and Twitter.

TCJ: The JAHM website lists a timeline of important events in Jewish American history. Are there any events that stand out as especially important to you?

AS: There are so many meaningful dates and events on the timeline, and we are always adding more, as communities identify new dates and events that they submit to us through the interactive features of the website. But a couple do stand out for me.
One of them is 1654, the year that 23 Jews, refugees from Recife, Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdam – now New York. They joined together to form a congregation, Shearith Israel, still in existence and thriving in New York City. Could they ever have imagined, after escaping religious persecution, that there would be a month dedicated to honoring the contributions of Jewish Americans?
The other date on the timeline is 1883, the year that Emma Lazarus wrote a poem called “The New Colossus.” Her words, which grace the Statue of Liberty, are so powerful in describing what America meant to all of her immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. I lift my eyes beside the golden door.”

TCJ: What do you think President Obama’s proclamation (including the lines “The United States would not be the country we know without the achievements of Jewish Americans”) means for Jews in America and around the world?

AS: I think that Jews can take pride in the fact that over a 350-year plus period, they have made important contributions to America in every field of endeavor – medicine, science, the arts, politics, military service, sports, entertainment – the list goes on and on. It is important for Jews to learn about and acknowledge these achievements, but it is even more important that all Americans become aware of how this segment of our population has impacted American history.
It is also important to recognize that Jewish Americans are not alone in making this impact. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans – all of these groups and more have also contributed to the America we know today. The more we learn about each other, the more tolerant a nation we become.

Events are being held across the country to commemorate JAHM. Here in the Twin Cities, you can join Bet Shalom on Friday, May 14th for Shabbat services at 8pm when Rabbi David Locketz will offer a special sermon in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, “Remembering Rabbi Joseph Rauch: Reform Judaism Then and Now.” Rabbi Rauch was a reform rabbi, community leader and founding member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. And if you know of other local JAHM events, be sure to write about them in the comments below.