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–by Joanna Hallac

May is Jewish American Heritage Month (it’s also Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and we’ll have a future post on that topic, too), and as such, we thought we’d delve a little bit into the history of this month and how it evolved from a week-long celebration into a month-long one. Additionally, we will examine the issue of why May was ultimately chosen over April as the month to commemorate the contributions of Jewish Americans.

Jewish girls protest child labor in 1909 NYC (Library of Congress)

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter became the first in a succession of U.S. presidents to declare Jewish Heritage Week following an authorization and request of Congress to do so. The week chosen was in April, as that month coincided with the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising and Independence Day in Israel, as well as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Given the clear importance of the month of April in the history of Israel and the Jewish people, it is interesting that when a month was first dedicated to honoring Jewish Americans it was May and not April that was settled upon; however, according to the official government website dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, May was settled upon because in May 2004 there was a very successful celebration of the 350th anniversary of American Jewish History; therefore they decided to go that route.

After years of setting aside a week to celebrate Jewish heritage, the month of May was first declared Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006, when President George W. Bush proclaimed it as such. This was the culmination of a long and concerted effort by the Jewish Museum of Florida, as well as members of the South Florida Jewish community, who were able to get Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL) and then-Senator Arlen Specter (PA) to introduce identical bills in the House and Senate to authorize the President to issue a proclamation. The House bill passed unanimously in December 2005 and the Senate bill also passed unanimously in February 2006, followed by the presidential proclamation in late April 2006.

In the first presidential proclamation in 1980, President Carter, in speaking about the contributions of Jewish Americans to our history and culture, said “In medicine, education, trade, the law, politics, the labor movement, religion, motion pictures, athletics, literature, and more, the Jewish people have richly endowed America and the American way of life. American Jews have made their heritage, a heritage of struggle for freedom, knowledge, and human dignity, part of the inheritance of all.” (American Presidency Project)

Jews in NYC pray, early 20th century (Library of Congress)

Lastly, back in the fall, I wrote a post about Jewish members of Congress in celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so feel free to take a look back at that post as we commemorate the many contributions that Jewish Americans have made to this country since they first arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Enjoy!


Sources consulted:
Jewish American Heritage Month website

Library of Congress

American Presidency Project