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July 4: How America’s Jews helped build our nation

They believed they had a shared responsibility in building and protecting a country in its infancy.

The American flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The American flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

American Jews are an integral part of U.S. history. 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 future generations. Jewish Americans played crucial roles in shaping American Jewish identity and contributing to various aspects of American society, including independence, democracy, culture, science and medicine.

Early Jewish Contributions

Jewish immigrants helped build the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. Like many other immigrants, they fled persecution, wars and famines for a fresh start in a new land. Jews played roles in commerce, diplomacy and the fight for civil rights—laying the groundwork for the Jewish community’s growth and integration in the centuries that followed. They believed they had a shared responsibility in building and protecting a nation in its infancy. These were the early roots of Jewish American patriotism.

Asser Levy was one of the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (today’s New York) in 1654. He successfully challenged a law that restricted certain civic privileges to Dutch citizens, arguing that as a taxpayer, he should be entitled to equal treatment. The colony’s governor and council forbade Jews from serving in the colony’s defense: “Jews cannot be permitted to serve as soldiers.” Levy successfully petitioned Holland, which allowed Jews to stand guard like other citizens. His efforts contributed to the broader struggle for religious freedom and civil rights in the American colonies.

Revolutionary War

The history of American Jews during the Revolutionary War is a significant chapter in the larger story of Jewish immigration and integration in the United States. While Jews were a small minority in the American colonies during this period, they joined their neighbors in fighting for their right to exist in the land they helped build. Their experiences and contributions were woven into the fabric of America’s religious freedom and the fight for independence.

Francis Salvador, a planter born to a Sephardic Jewish family in South Carolina, was the first Jew to be elected to public office in America. He served as a representative in the South Carolina Provincial Congress and actively supported the cause of independence. Tragically, Salvador was killed in a skirmish with Loyalist forces in 1776, becoming the first Jew to die fighting in the American Revolution.

Contributions from women were often restricted by societal norms and expectations of the time. Rebecca Gratz organized fundraising events and provided support for soldiers and their families after the war. She became a leading figure in charitable organizations and educational initiatives, particularly women’s education.

Historical records indicate hundreds of Jews fought in the Continental Army. Jews contributed to the war effort, both in military service and financial support—helping shape the course of the war. Their involvement and sacrifices exemplify the broader commitment to the struggle for American independence.

The Revolutionary War and the establishment of the United States of America brought significant changes for American Jews. The concept of religious freedom and the separation of church and state—foundational principles of the new nation—benefited Jews and other religious minorities. State constitutions and the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and equal rights for all citizens.

Promoting Equality

From the earliest days of the country, American Jews have fought for their own rights and for the broader principle of freedom for all citizens. Fighting for religious freedom, championing civil rights and promoting equality have placed the Jewish community at the forefront of shaping a more democratic society. U.S. Jews have exemplified the importance of civic participation in the pursuit to “form a more perfect union.”

American Jews have been instrumental in promoting social change throughout history. Ernestine Rose and Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, founder of the National Council of Jewish Women, championed women’s rights, including suffrage. The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her career to advancing women’s rights. Ginsburg fought as early as the 1970s for women to be able to pursue the same roles in society as men and was critical of the lack of “working women as competent and successful role models.”

Jews stood shoulder to shoulder with the African-American community in its fight for equal rights. The NCJW collaborated with the National Council of Negro Women to develop “Wednesdays in Mississippi” to build bridges of understanding between women of different ethnic and religious groups. Wednesday’s Women sought to end violence against African-Americans and to help build relationships before the end of segregation.

Several Jews were prominent in the labor movement: Samuel Gompers founded the AFL and Sidney Hillman co-founded the CIO. Their efforts helped establish fundamental labor rights, such as the right to fair wages, safe workplaces and collective bargaining. Rose Finkelstein organized for the right of married women to work and keep their paychecks. Judy Heumann championed the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Edie Windsor was a leading gay rights activist. She sued the federal government after being required to pay more than $300,000 in estate taxes because federal law did not treat same-sex surviving spouses equally. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Windsor’s favor, leading to new federal rights, privileges and benefits.

Cultural Contributions

From the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges and from Mae West to Jack Benny, Jewish entertainers laid the foundation for contemporary celebrities like Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Scarlett Johansson and Mayim Bialik. In sports, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax became record-setting baseball stars while Aly Raisman brought home three Olympic gold medals. These individuals exemplify Jewish contributions to America’s vibrant cultural fabric. U.S. Jews have made significant advancements of knowledge in science, technology and economics: There are 132 American Jewish Nobel laureates.

Jewish cultural traditions and practices are enmeshed in broader American society. Yiddish phrases like spiel and chutzpah are ingrained in common usage, highlighting the influence of Jewish language and culture on everyday speech. The talents and achievements of American Jews contribute to the nation’s vibrant and diverse identity.

American Patriotism

Two well-known American Jews made iconic and long-lasting contributions to American patriotism: poet Emma Lazarus and composer Israel “Irving” Berlin. Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883 to help raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Her poem was engraved in the pedestal, including the immortal expression, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Irving Berlin wrote God Bless America while serving in the army during World War I. 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.” Berlin scored the music for the 1949 Broadway musical Miss Liberty, which included a song called “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.”

Points to consider:

  1. Jews are an essential part of American history.

Just as Americans of other ethnic and religious groups have laid the foundation for today’s America, Jews also contributed their share—from before the Revolutionary War through today. While there are famous Jews who are household names, many everyday Jews contribute to American success. Jewish teachers educated future generations and construction workers helped build the nation’s skyscrapers. U.S. Jews proudly served in all branches of the military in all of America’s wars. There are more than 5,000 American Jews buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Jews are one of the many ethnic groups that helped build America—pursuing and protecting the American dream. They should be celebrated like all other Americans, not persecuted.

  1. American Jews served proudly in the Revolutionary War.

Service in the Revolutionary War underscored the Jewish community’s belief in the principles of freedom, equality and religious liberty that were at the core of the American Revolution. Despite being a small minority in the colonies, Jews participated in the war effort, both on and off the battlefield. Jewish soldiers joined the Continental Army, fighting alongside their fellow patriots against British forces, demonstrating their courage and dedication to the cause of liberty. Jews also provided critical support to the war effort by securing financing and supplies. Jews exemplified their commitment to American independence and their desire to contribute to the formation of a new nation.

  1. President Washington thanked Jews for being “good citizens.”

Moses Seixas was a Jewish leader in Rhode Island best known for his role in writing a letter to President George Washington in 1790. The letter, on behalf of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, expressed gratitude for the freedom and religious tolerance enjoyed by American Jews. Washington’s response to Seixas’s letter, known as the “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” affirmed the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom and equality:

“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.” — President George Washington

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