How to Celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month

Gordon Haber

Jewish children orphaned as a result of World War I arriving in the United States, 1921. Photo: Library of Congress

It wasn’t always a month. Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the third week in April to be “Jewish Heritage Week,” a time to recognize the contributions of American Jewry and “to foster understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity that has made America great.”

Over the years, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton issued repeated proclamations for a Jewish Heritage Week. It wasn’t until 2006 that President George W. Bush formally instituted May as Jewish American Heritage Month, to more thoroughly celebrate Jewish contributions to American life. 

“As a nation of immigrants,” Bush proclaimed, “the United States is better and stronger because Jewish people from all over the world have chosen to become American. The Jewish people have enriched our culture and contributed to a more compassionate and hopeful America.” 

Great. But how did the week become a month? Apparently due to a years-long joint effort by the Jewish Museum of Florida, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and then-Senator Arlen Specter. In 2006, the resolution passed unanimously through the House of Representatives and the Senate; one wonders if it would so easily in 2023.

An informal social media poll by CANVAS indicated that many are unaware of Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM). So we put together a few resources for our readers. There are links to share, enlightening reads, and events to attend online or (gasp) in-person. In an era of rising antisemitism and racism, Jewish Americans and the people who love them should remember all we’ve achieved since the first Jew set foot in New Amsterdam in 1654. 

And do let us know how you celebrated—you can find us on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook.

Jewish Heritage

Several government agencies are paying tribute to JAHM with events and online exhibitions. The Library of Congress has helpfully compiled a comprehensive list. A few highlights:

  • Jewish Veterans of World War II. The Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project Collection is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in American history. For JAHM, they’ve assembled oral histories from Jewish veterans of World War II, including one from renowned newspaper humorist Art Buchwald (1925-2007): “There weren’t too many Jewish kids in the Marines. Some of them came from places where they’d never seen a Jew.” 
  • A 1982 radio broadcast on Jewish humor. “May you spend many hours in a soft chair…at your dentist.” The American Archive of Public Broadcasting has unearthed a KUT interview with Professor Esther Fuchs of UT Austin discussing Jewish humor and its complicated sources: “The ability [to laugh] helped Jews cope psychologically with many of the historical predicaments they had to live through.”
  • When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill. The unending debate on prayer in government spaces usually has a Christian context. Historian Howard Mortman’s book, an exhaustive chronicle of the hundreds of rabbis who have led prayers in Congress, is a reminder of the Jewish presence in the heart of American democracy. Watch Mortman’s 2022 discussion with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb on YouTube.

Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, 1945. Photo: Library of Congress.

Jewish American Heritage

Our friends at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History have created Jewish American, a website packed with resources to honor JAHM. Some suggestions:

  • Investigate Jewish arts and culture. Jewish Americans have made a vast contribution to the arts and in America; click the “cultural resources” tab to reveal a rich collection of videos, reading lists, and exhibitions—including the Jewish American Hall of Fame
  • Delve into often-overlooked Jewish communities. Click the “learn” tab for perspectives on Jews of Color, a celebration of Asian American Jews, and The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.
  • Stand up to antisemitism. The “antisemitism” tab provides reports and resources to help deal with the resurgence of prejudice and violence in the U.S. and abroad, such as an opportunity to share your story with The Combat Antisemitism Movement.

Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963. Source: National Archives.

JAHM Collection at the Jewish Educator Portal

The Jewish Educator Portal is a bountiful source for Jewish education and professional development. Its JAHM Collection brings together an eclectic array of well-researched lesson plans and curricula, useful for classrooms and the casual reader. A few favorites:

  • The portal has a welcome emphasis on Jewish diversity, with online exhibitions on Seattle’s Sephardic legacyIranian Jews, and the long, interesting history of Black American Jews.
  • In this fractious moment, it’s difficult to remember when American Jews were united about the epic struggle to free Soviet Jewry. The portal has a video and lesson plan on the refuseniks, Soviet Jews denied emigration to Israel, and the courageous women refuseniks who struggled for freedom.
  • “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” Emma Lazarus’s inspiring poem, The New Colossus, is enshrined on the base of the Statue of Liberty. The history of the poem and its author is more interesting and complicated than you might think: find out more in the Emma Lazarus curriculum.

Maxwell Street Market, Chicago, Illinois, 1977. Photo: Jonas Dovydenas via Library of Congress.

Bonus JAHM resources from CANVAS grantees!

We like to celebrate our stellar grantees all year round, but here are a few upcoming ways to experience Jewish arts and culture for JAHM:

  • Raise your voice and lift your spirits with Rising Song Institute: Hadar DC Nigun Circle with Rabbi Deborah Sacks Mintz, April 30th in DC.  
  • Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity, an interfaith exhibition from the Jewish Art Salon, opens May 11th in New York City.
  • The Tonsil Riots. The Greatest Mohel. Yom Kippur Balls: the Jewish Bizarre Podcast from Reboot Studios is a deep dive into stranger corners of Jewish history with Dr. Tony Michels, Dr. Eddy Portnoy, and actor/comic Jessica Chaffin.

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