May is Jewish American Heritage Month, and the National Museum of American Jewish History is enmeshed in the nationwide annual education project it began to lead
“We joke that every month is Jewish American Heritage Month at the museum,” said Emily August, director of communications and public engagement.
CEO Misha Galperin said the origins of JAHM date to 2006, when U.S. Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter introduced a resolution urging President George W. Bush to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture.
The resolutions passed unanimously, first in the House of Representatives in December 2005 and later in the Senate in February 2006. Bush embraced the idea, and every sitting president since Bush has also signed on to the project, including President Joe Biden.
A group of cultural and history organizations, including the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, collaborated to form the Jewish American Heritage Month coalition. The institutions created museum exhibits, art galleries, classroom teaching materials and online videos and photo collections dedicated to telling the story of Jews in the United States. There was also an annual congressional celebration in honor of the month.
In 2018, NMAJH assumed leadership of the event and the various programming it entailed. When Galperin became CEO in 2019, he was taken with the idea and felt JAHM was not as well-known as it deserved to be.
He and his staff began brainstorming ways to help the month fulfill its purpose: educating the public about Jewish contributions to the United States and expressing gratitude for the opportunities that the nation has given Jews.
In May 2020, less than two months after museums closed to the public due to COVID-19, NMAJH began creating an entirely virtual JAHM programming schedule. The theme chosen was “Crisis and Resilience,” and many of the events featured prominent Jewish American historians giving lectures about historic moments of crisis and answering questions from their online audiences. Topics included the Civil War, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Great Depression.
Galperin said digital marketing and partnerships with 50 other institutions allowed NMAJH to reach approximately 400,000 people virtually.
This year, the museum wants to build on that success by expanding its number of partners, especially among organizations outside the Jewish community. August said the number of partners is between 75 and 80, a significant increase from last year. For the first time, organizations besides museums and cultural institutions, including corporations and government entities, started to reach out to express interest in incorporating JAHM into diversity, equity and inclusion training.
This year’s theme is a quote from first century sage Rabbi Hillel: “If I’m not for myself, who am I, and if I’m only for myself, What am I? And if not now, when?”
Galperin said the quote addresses issues that the Jewish community needs to address, including preserving heritage and combating rising antisemitism, as well as the history of Jews of color and Jewish solidarity with multiple communities in the face of national reckonings on racial injustice.
“We embrace the Jewish community in all its diversity,” Galperin said. “We’re trying to bring in as many different stories and people, whether they be Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Jews of color, different denominations or levels of religious observance.”
The kickoff event will be a multi-day screening beginning on May 8 of filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s documentary “Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story,” which focuses on the titular character’s leadership during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the movement to free Soviet Jews.
Other events will include a virtual discussion among members of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations about the importance of America’s Black and Jewish communities coming together to combat hate and an all-night virtual Shavuot festival.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first ordained Asian American rabbi in North America, will speak in honor of the intersection between JAHM and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which also takes place in May.
NMAJH’s partner organizations have provided online resources for perusal, from the Theatre Schmooze Podcast by the Alliance for Jewish Theatre to reading lists from the Jewish Book Council to online exhibits from regional Jewish museums across the country.
August said NMAJH will organize a nomination and voting process for the Ed Snider Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame Hometown Hero Contest. Participants will be able to nominate and vote for people in their communities with outstanding records of service, and one winner will be inducted into the hall later this year.
“Just reading the news over the past year, you read stories of incredible individuals who have taken the initiative to help their communities,” August said. “It’s a way to celebrate the ongoing, everyday contributions of Jews in America.”
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