Commemorating U.S. Jewish heritage

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) addresses a meeting in Washington on Sept. 27. (Jennifer Jacobson)

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) addresses a meeting in Washington on Sept. 27. (Jennifer Jacobson)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 (JTA) — Jewish American Heritage Month is in May, but its inaugural this year had the coolness of March about it: it came in with a roar and went out with a whimper. It was meant to be a signal that U.S. Jews had finally earned the marker enjoyed by a host of other ethnic minorities, including blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who initiated the legislation, won unanimous backing for the commemorative month in the House and the Senate, and President Bush quickly signed it into being. And then, well, nothing. “You have a month proclaimed,” said Gary P. Zola, the executive director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. “That doesn’t mean it has to have any content. It can lie fallow and devoid of any commemoration.” The resulting silence unsettled Jewish leaders who worried American educators would think there was little to say about being American and Jewish. The concerns led Wasserman Schultz to convene a meeting last week on Capitol Hill of top Jewish educators and organization leaders to plan content for next year’s heritage month. Participants represented the Reform and Orthodox movements, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Committee, among other groups. Jewish legislators, including Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), also dropped in. Zola said the meeting, the bulk of which was closed to reporters, was really a crash course in other heritage month celebrations, such as Black History Month in February; National Women’s History Month in March; Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May; American Indian Heritage Month in November; and Hispanic Heritage Month in September. “We want to have it be useful,” he said. Some of the input was practical advice on how to set up the infrastructure to facilitate commemorations: For instance, the National Women’s History Project, a nonprofit group with 501c3 tax exempt status, organizes National Women’s History Month. Other discussions dealt with content. Marcia Zerivitz, the founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida, plumped for a Department of Education curriculum to be distributed throughout schools and communities, as is done for Black history and American Indian heritage months. Zerivitz said the focus of the month should be on the contributions Jews have made to the entire fabric of American life, and not on Judaism as a religion, on or the Holocaust or Israel. “This is an ethnic group,” she said. “The Holocaust has been overemphasized” in the scheme of “4,000 years of Jewish history.” That would instill pride in young Jews, Zerivitz said. Such a boost is much needed, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The Jewish community is suffering from ignorance of our rich heritage, which is slowly turning into apathy,” he said. To that end, he hopes that Jewish heritage month will accomplish two goals: “American society’s increased appreciation of the Jewish community and at the same time, but no less important, an increased appreciation by the American Jewish community of itself.” Wasserman first considered the idea soon after her 2004 election when she was approached by Zerivitz and Judy Gilbert Gould, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “You have so many people nationally who’ve never encountered a Jewish person,” Wasserman Schultz told JTA. Education, she believed, was the best way to counter such ignorance. “If I do nothing else in my legislative career,” Wasserman Schultz said, “if I could have been responsible for the germination of tolerance and understanding and lessen the incidents of anti-Semitism and bigotry, then that would be a wonderful legacy to be able to leave to the next generation of Jews growing up in America.” Zerivitz says Florida Jewish History Month, signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush in April 2003 on Zerivitz’s initiative, could prove a useful model. The statewide commemoration, observed in January, includes a Jewish heritage trail that marks that state’s Jewish historical sites. Little-known facts, as well as a time line of Florida Jewish history, appear on the museum’s Web site. Lesson plans and fact sheets go out to politicians, the press and schools, so people are aware of the contributions Jews have made to the development of Florida. One example: David Levy Yulee, a Jew, was Florida’s first U.S. Senator in 1854.

NEXT STORY