May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a month to acknowledge the pivotal role that Jewish Americans have played throughout American history. When Jews first arrived in the United States, many came seeking refuge and the promise of the American dream: To live in liberty and practice our faith in freedom.
Our community has succeeded, enriching the country and shaping the American way of life. One need only recall some names: Sandy Koufax and Aly Raisman, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand, Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan, Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, Mayim Bialik and Ben Platt, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and many more.
From the very beginning, Jewish Americans contributed to the fabric of our nation. America was built on a strong ethical tradition of family and community—foundational values to Jewish Americans. As we honor our progress and the contributions of those who came before us, we must also remember our obligation to the future generations of souls yearning for the American dream. There is much inspiration and hope to be found in the history of Jewish Americans.
In every military conflict beginning with the Revolutionary War, thousands of Jewish Americans valiantly defended our country as members of the United States Armed Forces. These courageous men and women served to protect their fellow citizens and to advance the cause of freedom, laying the foundation of peace for others to follow. One need only go to Arlington or Normandy to see the Stars of David that attest to this sacrifice. In fact, in my own family, like that of many other Jewish Americans, my grandfather z”l, my father and both of my brothers served in the U.S. military.
In the 20th century alone, Jewish Americans were pioneers in business, science and the arts, making immeasurable contributions to culture and our everyday lives. In 1903, Oscar Straus became the first Jew to hold a cabinet position when he was appointed Secretary of Labor and Commerce. One year later, physicist Albert A. Michelson (a fellow Clevelander) would become the first American Jew to win the Nobel Prize. In 1916, Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court. His legacy would eventually lead to the founding of Brandeis University in 1948, the first nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored institution of higher education. By 1957, the United States boasted the world’s largest Jewish population, a title that Israel claimed only in 2003.
Jewish Americans have also left their mark on the world of sports and entertainment. From Al “The Hebrew Hammer” Rosen, who played ten seasons for the then-Cleveland Indians, to Mark Spitz, who won the second-most gold medals during a single Olympics, to Sue Bird, the only WNBA player to win titles in three different decades. In the world of entertainment, Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock on “Star Trek,” based his iconic Vulcan salute on Judaism’s traditional priestly benediction. Stan Lee, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and fellow Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, all created iconic comic book characters that continue to astound and amaze. And for decades Jewish American comedians—from Mel Brooks and Larry David to Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer—defined the country’s comedic sensibilities.
This legacy of success, however, comes with adversity. Jews have long faced discrimination and outbreaks of antisemitism, hatred and violence. For example, Paul Anthony Samuelson, who would become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, was denied advancement at Harvard University during an era in which a quota system at elite colleges and universities limited the number of Jewish students. Just over 50 years later, his nephew Larry Summers would serve as Harvard’s 27th president.
Nonetheless, Jewish Americans persevered. Many used their own experiences with prejudice to better society, taking on active roles in the civil rights struggles of other groups in America. Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s iconic leader Julius Rosenwald partnered with Booker T. Washington to build more than 5,000 public schools for black students across the South. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel courageously marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, Jewish American political activists, many of whom are active in government and civic organizations, continue to drive change across the country—engaged in trying to make the world a better place.
Jewish American Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of Jewish Americans to our country and, in turn, the world. It is a time to honor those who came before us and to remember our obligations to future generations. We must also continue to recognize the longstanding and bipartisan Israel-U.S. relationship and the significance of the United States’ recognition of the Jewish homeland and its stalwart alliance with Israel.
We came as the Other. Now we are an intrinsic part of what makes America America. Optimism was a key ingredient in drawing our forebearers to this country, stemming from their confidence that the future would be brighter here than it was in the shtetls of Europe and elsewhere. Despite the obvious troubles that we—and Jews around the world—face, America continues to be a great home for the Jewish people. For these reasons and countless others, I remain optimistic about the future of American Jewry.
William Daroff is the chief executive officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Follow him at @Daroff.