May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Does it Matter?

The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (Courtesy of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History)

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. That’s been the case since 2006, when the House and Senate voted unanimously to declare it as such, and President George W. Bush backed the resolution with an announcement of his own.

But did you realize that?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone.

On the spring calendar, Jewish American Heritage Month falls after Yom HaShoah and Israel’s birthday. This year, it also comes at a moment when rising antisemitism is a part of the national conversation. Finally, on the religious calendar, it arrives weeks after Passover and weeks before Shavuot.

With so much else going on, synagogues in the Philadelphia area are not planning events for JAHM. Neither is the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, according to Jeffrey Lasday, its chief of external affairs.

However, none of this is to say that Jewish American Heritage Month is a bad idea. It can be a good one, according to Emily August, the public engagement officer for the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. It just needs to become relevant.

“It is a designated moment when the contributions of Jews get amplified,” she said. “We have an awareness-building opportunity here.”

The Weitzman, based in Old City, plays a leading role in JAHM. It has organized a network of 200 partners around the country, representing 46 states, to spread the word. The museum offers a set of marketing materials and a social media campaign. And this year, at least in Philadelphia, it is paying for billboards about the month.

“We want everyone to celebrate JAHM in any way they can,” August said.

But so far, JAHM is not really on the radar of any of the denominations in the area.
Orthodox Rabbi Yonah Gross, who leads Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood, said, “I don’t foresee any major programming going on around it. Especially this year when there’s Israeli Independence Day and then Lag BaOmer next week.” Reconstructionist Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy, of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, also said that her synagogue is not planning any JAHM-specific events.

“It’s a busy month for confirmation and Shavuot,” she added. “There’s a lot going on in May.”

Reform Rabbi Geri Newburge, who leads Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, explained that, “We’re dealing with so many challenges as a Jewish community right now that I think that that is taking center stage. I don’t have to tell you about the ADL report where we had more incidents of antisemitism since people started counting these things.” Conservative Rabbi Eliott Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County said that JAHM gets “lost in the shuffle” of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Independence Day. His synagogue does not schedule any JAHM programming.

“I don’t think anyone has any criticism or opposition,” he said. “I don’t think the rank and file of our community is even aware of it.”

Each rabbi said that the month could be a positive for the Jewish community. Gross and Boswell-Levy believe that it can be a good way to inform the wider, non-Jewish community about Jewish culture. Newburge and Perlstein think that it’s important for Jews to receive positive recognition from politicians. Lasday agreed.

Zev Eleff, the president of Gratz College and a scholar of American Jewish history, sees the month as an opportunity to reinforce the American story of the Jewish people. The Jewish community today is focused on Israel. But Bush’s 2006 resolution came on the heels of Jewish community celebrations in 2004 of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to North America.

“To understand what’s unique about the American Jewish experience helps us understand a number of things,” Eleff said.

It is the museum’s mission to help make Eleff’s point, according to August. The hope is to transform JAHM into more of a cultural event to make people aware of Jewish American Heritage. August envisions a kickoff event on Independence Mall and a Jewish music festival during May. She is already working on a community events calendar for the month. She is also trying to use influencers to get young people involved.

“We have a lot of big dreams,” she said.

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