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What Is Jewish American Heritage Month? Celebrating Contributions and Culture

Being Jewish is a shared history, culture, community, and blessing.

The month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), and it’s a perfect time to celebrate the significant contributions Jewish people have made to American culture, arts, science, government, civil rights and beyond. Whether you already know a lot about Jewish American culture and history or are just beginning to learn, JAHM can be a great opportunity to go deeper and expand your appreciation for a group of Americans that have been shaping our country’s story in meaningful ways since its very beginnings.

Keep reading for additional background on JAHM, along with ideas for recognizing this special month on your own, with kids or with members of your family and community.

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When is Jewish American Heritage Month?  

Jewish American Heritage Month is observed in May. Every year, the president issues a proclamation to make it official.

How did Jewish American Heritage Month get started?  

Beginning in 1981, presidents started designating a Jewish American Heritage Week in April or May. In 2006, George W. Bush was the first to proclaim May as Jewish American Heritage Month. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a Jewish American herself, co-led the legislative initiative setting aside a month to highlight the importance of Jewish people to our country.

Why designate a Jewish American Heritage Month?  

As a religious and cultural minority in the US, the contributions and experiences of Jewish Americans have sometimes been omitted from our country’s national narrative, largely due to a history of bias against them. JAHM is designed to fully and authentically celebrate and honor their influence and impact on American society.

What does Jewish American Heritage Month mean to people?  

For many Jews, Jewish American Heritage Month is a time to be more intentional about celebrating their roots, for learning more about who they are and their rich history. For non-Jewish people, JAHM can be an opportunity to learn more about the culture, experiences and achievements of Jewish Americans and to make and deepen connections with Jewish people in their communities.

What are some ways to recognize Jewish American Heritage Month?  

Because Jewish American Heritage Month is a relatively new observance, people are still in the process of creating their celebrations through gatherings, events, museum exhibits, learning opportunities, interfaith conversations and more. In that spirit, here are some ideas for defining your JAHM observance, either on your own or in community.

 

Click
The Jewish American Heritage Month website hosts a wealth of resources for honoring JAHM, from National Archives articles and videos to a virtual Library of Congress museum exhibit entitled From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.

 

Connect
If you know someone of Jewish heritage, find out about their plans for celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month and ask whether there are activities you can join.

If you have Jewish heritage yourself, invite someone outside of that tradition to join you for a meal, gathering or event where they can learn more about Jewish faith and culture.

If there’s a synagogue or Jewish community center in your area, check their website or contact their office to learn about outreach events and opportunities connected to JAHM.

 

Read
The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage offers an extensive booklist for JAHM, with a mix of fiction, nonfiction and children’s books.

 

Listen
Can We Talk? is a monthly podcast from the Jewish Women’s Archive, with topics ranging from comedy and poetry to personal stories and interfaith discussions. The Thanksgiving Seder episode from November 2018 has particular relevance for Jewish American Heritage Month. It might make a good entry point for someone new to the podcast, but there’s goodness throughout each season.

 

Watch
The 2008 PBS documentary series The Jewish Americans offers a sweeping look at more than 350 years of Jewish-American history. You can watch clips on PBS or find the whole series on DVD through your library. The 2018 film GI Jews takes a close look at Jewish Americans serving in World War II and is available to watch online.

A quick online search will turn up many more lists of films and other media that offer insight into Jewish-American experience.

 

Share
The National Museum of American Jewish History is yet another treasure trove of resources for learning and celebrating during Jewish American Heritage Month. The museum also provides easy shareables that you can post on social media to spread the word about JAHM to friends and family who may not know about it.

How can I recognize Jewish American Heritage Month with kids?  

Older kids and teens can enjoy and learn from many of the same books, films and other resources as adults. Below are a few possibilities for younger kids.

 

Read
Each year the Association of Jewish Libraries honors three books with the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which celebrates books for young readers that authentically depict the Jewish experience. The award is named for writer Sydney Taylor, whose novel, All-of-a-Kind Family, was first published in 1951. The book was the first recipient of the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award for children’s literature in 1952. It’s considered foundational to the development of American-Jewish children’s literature.

This list includes all the winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award dating back to 1968, with options ranging from picture books to young adult reads. Our pick: The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (1988, picture book).

 

Watch
The 1986 animated film An American Tail appears on many lists of movies about Jewish-American experience. It offers an earworm of a theme song and an age-appropriate story that introduces younger kids to Jewish immigrant experience.

Jewish American Heritage Month is a relatively new observance, but once you know about it, you’ll find so many unique people to learn about, stories to dive in to and reasons to celebrate.