Jewish American Heritage Month | EDSITEment

Posted By on May 18, 2015

Each May, EDSITEment celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month by pointing to the rich array of educational resources on this subject. Many of the programs listed below are films which appeared on PBS as stand-alone specials or as part of long-running series such as American Experience and American Masters. Many of them have been funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities over the past decades. Each of them is accompanied by a multimedia website or Web page, which extends the life of the program with video clips, images, and interactives that can be used by teachers in their classroom or students doing research.

The idea of America as both a haven and a home for the religious faiths of the myriad diverse groups who, over the centuries, have immigrated to the United States is one that deeply resonates with most Americans. The blessings of religious and political liberty that these immigrants found in America were captured eloquently in George Washingtons letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. In this letter, Washington quotes a sentence from the Book of Micah of the Hebrew Bible:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitantswhile every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

A few sentences earlier Washington addresses American Jews as equal fellow citizens (the first time in history that any national leader had done so):

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which 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.

Washington's letter was in response to one written by Moses Seixas, Warden of the Jeshuat Israel Synagogue in Rhode Island. The EDSITEment-reviewed Bill of Rights Institute has a lesson in which students can read and compare the two letters via an interactive. A related lesson plan on Washington and Religious Liberty is available on the NEH-funded website Rediscovering George Washington. The principles of civil and religious liberty extolled in this letter and embodied in our Constitution encouraged and rewarded active participation in the social, political, and cultural life of the nation with results that can be celebrated in this feature.

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A good place to begin if one wants to understand Jewish life in America would be The Jewish Americans, recently broadcast on PBS stations and partially funded by NEH. This series offers a treasure trove of video clips, images, and student interactives on such topics as the Diaspora, which sent millions of Jews to the United States, the challenges of assimilation, the rise of immigrants from street peddlers on the lower East Side of New York city to sophisticated and wealthy merchants in the fashion industry, and the critical role that philanthropic organizations and education plays in the Jewish American community. The witty essayist Joseph Epstein wrote about this program in his article Hebrew National for Humanities magazine.

A related NEH-funded website Jews in America: Our Story documents the growth of the Jewish community from a group of 23 refugees fleeing from the Portuguese Inquisition in 1654. This comprehensive website on the history and culture includes an interactive historical timeline, with a gallery of over five hundred artifacts drawn from the library, archival, and museum collections of the Center for Jewish History and its partners. Another article from Humanities, Jewish Pioneers tells the stories of the new lives that European Jews made for themselves west of the Mississippi in the 19th century. According to one scholar there wasnt a single settlement west of the Mississippi of any significance which had not had a Jewish mayor in 1900.

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Jewish American Heritage Month | EDSITEment

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