From the Archive: American Jewish Thanksgivings

When refugees arrived in America fresh from the horrors of the Holocaust, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped them get acclimated. Part of their acclimation process was learning about a quintessentially American holiday. In November 1947, JTA reported on Thanksgiving dinners organized for displaced persons:

Some 400 DP’s who recently arrived in this country as immigrants will celebrate their first Thanksgiving dinners Thursday at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the United Service for New Americans.

Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman will be the guest of honor and the principal speaker at the USNA dinner. At the HIAS, Isaac Asofsky, executive director, will explain the significance of the holiday. Among the 200 persons at the HIAS celebration will be at least 50 children and representatives of 17 European nationalities.

Thanksgiving, after all, is an American tradition that Jews have embraced with enthusiasm.

At New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Thanksgiving observance is a longstanding tradition. In 1932, the synagogue was celebrating its 107th Thanksgiving, with a Protestant bishop as a guest speaker. Eighteen years later, as B’nai Jeshurun marked its 125th Thanksgiving, 11 of the city’s oldest Protestant churches sent representatives.

But it is not only in New York where Thanksgiving has provided an occasion for interfaith togetherness. In 1932 a Duluth, Minn., synagogue joined five area churches in a “union” Thanksgiving service.

Still, even with as ecumenical a holiday as Thanksgiving, interfaith togetherness could sometimes pose challenges. In 1929, four El Paso, Texas, ministers dropped out of another “union” Thanksgiving service because of religious complications stemming from the presence of rabbis. JTA reported:

The resigning ministers, however, made it clear that they were not opposed to joining hands with the Jews in the Thanksgiving service but that they could not participate in a service where they would be limited in praising Jesus Christ because of the presence of Jews. In this connection it was recalled that many years ago Rabbi Zielonka had fled from a Presbyterian church when the minister began preaching about Jesus.

Leading El Paso Christian clergy condemned the ministers’ withdrawal, and a rabbi’s address to the gathering garnered praise.

Thanksgiving has also been a time for charity. During the Great Depression, New York Jewish charities made sure that orphans, the aged and the ailing had all the holiday fixings — from turkey to football.

And like their fellow service members, when American Jewish soldiers were shipped overseas, they did not leave Thanksgiving behind. JTA reported on wartime Thanksgiving services for Jewish service members in London in 1942 and in liberated Paris in 1944. Major Judah Nadich, the chief U.S. Jewish chaplain in the theater, presided over services in a Paris synagogue that were attended by hundreds of soldiers and French Jews.

But even a timeless holiday such as Thanksgiving could change with the times, as this 1969 JTA story shows: “Reform synagogue will offer rock version of Thanksgiving ‘Prayers for Peace.’”

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