May is Jewish American Heritage Month! This annual month-long celebration is an opportunity to honor the accomplishments and contributions of Jewish Americans since their arrival in the 17th century.
This heritage month also is a time to examine the life of Jews in America — the difficulties, antisemitism, and discrimination they have faced over the years.
As a Jewish American who grew up in the Midwest and became a rabbi, I have experienced all the beauties Judaism can offer in America: the joys of the ability to worship, speak, and live without the threat of government persecution, as well as the hardships every Jew experiences at one time or another in their lives.
In my life as a teacher, I have had students ask me, “Where are your horns,” “Why did you kill Jesus,” and other questions that seem almost laughably absurd — but were asked with intense sincerity. Jewish friends in the business world or the U.S. armed forces tell me how they were passed over for promotions due to their Jewishness.
Conspiracy theories of the past have resurfaced in American culture and lead to proclamations like “Jews control the banks,” “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” and “There is a secret cabal” of Jews. All of these invoke the image of malicious men in a dark smoky room, playing with the world’s governments as pawns on a chessboard.
Of course, there is no merit to any of these claims, but American Jews are never immune to them — nor do they know when they will encounter someone who holds them responsible for such imagined crimes. These are not just far-away concepts for Jews in America, as Jews, such as myself, have felt the shift in America over the past few years and fear for the future.
Jewish American Heritage Month is a time to face that reality — and fight it — with the beautiful reality of Jews in America, who have, at times, viewed the United States as an escape from persecution, a nation of opportunity and safety.
I have spent the better part of my life studying Judaism and Jewish history — not only as a rabbi but also as a Ph.D. student — and there are so many incredible things to learn that I struggled to confine them all to this article.
The discussion of Jewish life in America is not and should not be limited to the fears and realities of persecution but rather a celebration of the accomplishments and enjoyment of Jews in this great country we all call home.
I’ve put together a guide of ways to celebrate Jewish Americana Heritage Month. But first, here are some facts about the history of this celebration:
5 Facts About the History of Jewish American Heritage Month
- In April 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed that May would be celebrated as Jewish American Heritage Month.
- President Bush recognized the 350-year history of Jewish contributions to America — since the arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam.
- The resolutions introduced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Arlen Specter for Jewish American Heritage Month passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.
- Florida celebrates their own Florday Jewish History Month in January each year.
- There is an official website for Jewish American Heritage Month that combines the work of the Library of Congress, various National Archives, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
While it’s essential to learn more about and uplift the experiences of Jewish Americans every single day, it’s helpful to have somewhere to start. So we’ve created a guide on how to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month this year.
By the way, some of the links in this article (like books!) are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
Activities and Ideas: How To Recognize Jewish American Heritage Month
Learn the early history of Jews in America.
In 1654, 23 Jewish refugees walked onto the shores of New Amsterdam — a Dutch settlement established at the southern tip of Manhattan — carrying a Torah (The Five Books of Moses) and the clothes on their backs — marking the beginning of Jewish emigration to the New World.
Escaping the Spanish Inquisition led by Catholic rulers, these 23 Sephardi originated from Spain and Portugal, and more Spanish Jews followed. The arrivals of Jews from Spain and Portugal were only the beginning, as German Jewish emigration to America began in 1830, and Eastern European Jews arrived in 1880.
However, the first documented evidence of a Jew in North America was a mineralogist named Yoachim Ganz, sent by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, two decades before Jamestown.
Though Jews first settled in New Amsterdam, by the late 18th century, Jews had found homes in Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston. Thanks to the opportunities of the New World, Jews found comfort in a place they could live where they wished and do businesses with whom they wanted.
While these are comforts Americans take for granted — to Jews, they were radical and miraculous, having lived for millennia in foreign nations facing discrimination, ghettoization, and persecution.
Watch documentaries about Jewish contributions to America.
American Jews have contributed to all facets of American society, from business to the government! Unfortunately, many people only know the image of Jews through stereotypical roles, movies, or TV shows, which are hardly accurate. These documentaries will illuminate how Jews were and are immersed in every aspect of American society. Did you know there were Jews in the Wild West? Jews who fought for America in WWII? Jews who were essential at the beginning of the fashion industry and Hollywood?
There’s so much to learn about American Judaism! Dive into these documentaries about Jewish history in the United States:
- The Jewish Americans - PBS
- Jews of the Wild West: Jewish Pioneers
- GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II - PBS
- The U.S. and the Holocaust - Ken Burns
- When Jews Were Funny: A History of Jewish Comedy in America - Amazon Prime
- Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags - HBO
- America ReFramed: There Are Jews Here - PBS
Read books about Jewish American History.
There is a wealth of information regarding Jewish history — thanks to brilliant and accomplished historians and professors around the country!
Here are some books to get you started:
- “American Judaism” by Jonathan D. Sarna (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader” by Gary P. Zola (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” by Jack Wertheimer (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Dixie Diaspora: an Anthology of Southern Jewish History” by Mark Bauman (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America” by Shari Rabin (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry” by Gary P. Zola (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience” by Jonathan D. Sarna and David G. Dalin (Amazon)
- “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People” by Walter Russell Mead (Bookshop) (Amazon)
Learn about Jewish American achievements.
Jewish Americans from all walks of life have achieved incredible feats thanks to the opportunities in the United States. Jews have received awards in all six categories of the Nobel Prize, with over 20% of all Nobel laureates being Jewish — many of whom were and are American. However, Jewish Americans have also excelled in science, law, film, art, comedy, and more.
- Albert Einstein - the theoretical physicist best known for developing the theory of relativity
- Louis Brandeis - the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice
- Emma Lazarus - a poet whose words from “The New Colossus” are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty
- Steven Spielberg - a writer, producer, and the most commercially successful film director ever
- Leonard Bernstein - a world-renowned musician, conductor, and composer
- Stan Lee - a comic book writer and creator of the Marvel Universe
- Gloria Steinem - a passionate leader of the women’s rights movement
- Mel Blanc - the voice of loveable characters of Looney Tunes, The Jetsons, and The Flinstones
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg - the first female Jewish Supreme Court Justice
Add some new podcasts to your queue.
Looking for a new podcast for that commute to work? Here are some that will bring you deep into the Jewish American experience, past and present!
The Jews are Tired: “A weekly digest of the big stories around the Jewish world, through the perspective of American Jewish Journalist, Lev Gringauz.”
Unorthodox: “Unorthodox is the universe’s leading Jewish podcast, hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz.”
Judaism Unbound: “Listen in as Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg analyze pressing issues for 21st-century American Judaism.”
Kosher Money: “Living the life of an Orthodox Jew in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant income. Unfortunately, many are struggling to keep up.”
American Jew: “There is so much more to being a Jew than just religion. In each episode, comedians and American Jews Jonathan Randall and Jordon Ferber schmooze about what’s happening in the world.”
People of the Pod: “People of the Pod is a weekly podcast analyzing global affairs through a Jewish lens, brought to you by the American Jewish Committee.”
Antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S. today, with Jewish hate crimes, synagogues defaced, mass shootings, and gatherings of hate groups.
Some Jews cannot hide their Jewishness due to their ritual wear, while others are assimilated and may blend in more — but both are fearful in these turbulent times.
It’s common to feel helpless and not know where to start to try to help minorities in this country, like the Jewish people (2.4% of the U.S. adult population) — so here are some ways to help!
Learn about the problem of antisemitism.
There are many helpful books and articles out there that help explain antisemitism, its history, and its rise. Explore these resources to better understand the problem of antisemitism today:
- The State of Antisemitism in America - American Jewish Committee
- Antisemitism in America - ADL
- Why the Jews: History of Antisemitism - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- My book, “Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians,” is written for American Christians wrestling with the rise of Christian antisemitism.
- Another book, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” is for those who wish to know more about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Support Jewish-owned businesses.
You may not know that one of your favorite brands is Jewish-owned, or you may be looking to support small Jewish businesses locally! Go out and get yourself some Michael Kors, Sierra Nevada, Estée Lauder, or search for small Jewish businesses online and locally!
Donate to Jewish organizations in your community or nationally that support your cause.
Tikkun Olam (healing the world) is a strong Jewish value — and so there are countless Jewish organizations that work to make the world a better place!
- The Jewish Federation of North America - making a difference for the North American Jewish community
- Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) - support for immigrants and refugees
- Bend the Arc - a Jewish partnership for justice
- Mazon - a Jewish response to hunger
- Keshet - support for LGBTQ+ equality in Jewish life
- T'ruah - the Rabbinic call for human rights
- American Jewish World Service (AJWS) - fighting poverty in the developing world.
Attend local events for Jewish American Heritage Month.
Thanks to the official Jewish American Heritage Month website, you can easily find events to commemorate Jewish American Heritage Month via the following sites:
- Library of Congress Event Calendar
- National Archives Calendar
- National Endowment for the Humanities Calendar
- National Gallery of Art Calendar
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Calendar
Watch movies by Jewish filmmakers.
“These directors are Jewish?” They sure are! Not only that, below is a list of Jewish directors who took home Academy Awards over the years! Watch these classics this month through a new lens to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month!
- Michael Hazanavicius - The Artist (2011)
- Joel Coen/Ethan Coen - No Country for Old Men (2007)
- Roman Polanski - The Pianist (2002)
- Sam Mendes - American Beauty (1999)
- Steven Spielberg - Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- Oliver Stone - Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
- Barry Levinson - Rain Man (1988)
- Sydney Pollack - Out of Africa (1985)
- James L. Brooks - Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Milos Forman - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- Mike Nichols - The Graduate (1967)
Listen to a playlist of Jewish American musicians:
Many of the below artists may be well known to you, but their Jewish background may not be!
This Jewish American Heritage Month is an opportunity for you to listen to your favorite artists in a new light, with a fresh perspective.
Some make Jewish references in their music, while others cite their Jewish heritage as a creative inspiration or as a part of their story of pursuing music.
Here are a few favorite Jewish musicians to listen to this month:
- Adam Levine of Maroon 5
- Lenny Kravitz
- Billy Joel
- Bette Midler
- Gene Simmons
- Bob Dylan
- Neil Diamond
- Paul Simon
- Art Garfunkel
- Carly Simon
- Barbra Streisand
- David Lee Roth
Ensure your office is a safe space for Jewish employees.
Living in America with a Christian majority can cause people to make unintentionally isolating or exclusive choices. For example, are there Bible verses posted at your desk or in the office? Are you aware of anyone who keeps Kosher when bringing food? Is God or prayer mentioned in meetings and spoken about in a Christo-Normative fashion? Are the jokes being told inappropriate or possibly even antisemitic?
These are opportunities to speak to your HR department or coworkers directly. Making these changes in your workplace may seem minuscule, but it will mean a great deal to your company’s (current and future) Jewish employees!
Highlight Jewish American Heritage Month in your company newsletter or company blog posts.
If your brand or company sends a newsletter to customers or team members, this is a great way to inform folks about Jewish American Heritage Month thoughtfully.
Create a section where you highlight historical Jewish figures, give folks tips for celebrating, share ways to give back to Jewish organizations in your community — and maybe even share this article as a resource!
For Kids / Students At School
Read about Jewish history and observance.
There are books about Jewish culture, holidays, and more that are appropriate for different audiences and ages. Thanks to organizations such as the PJ Library, many Jewish children’s books have been made available over the past few years! Dig in!
- “A Moon for Moe and Mo” by Jane Breskin Zalben — The story of an interfaith friendship between Brooklyn children: Moses, a Jewish boy, and Mohammed, a Muslim boy | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Who is My Neighbor” by Sandy Sasso and Amy-Jill Levine — A story about seeing our neighbors differently | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “The Stars Will Be My Nightlight” by Jen Halpern — A story about a little boy on Sukkot | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner” by Marissa Moss — A historical look at a female Jewish physicist in Berlin at the rise of Nazism | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Even Higher! A Rosh Hashanah Story” by Eric A. Kimmel — A retelling of an old Jewish tale about the mystery of where a rabbi goes before Rosh Hashanah | (Amazon)
- “Clarence’s Topsy-Turvy Shabbat” by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod — a story about a raccoon trying to get ready for Shabbat | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz — The story of a 16-year-old experiencing a divorce of her Black mom and Jewish dad | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “It’s a Whole Spiel” by Katherine Locke & Laura Silverman — Stories about Jewish summer camps, holidays, friends, and relationships | (Amazon)
- “Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens” by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin — A book addressing the concerns of young adults and how the Torah can help | (Bookshop) (Amazon)
On Social Media
Watch for antisemitism and report it.
Jews in America suffer enormously from global and local antisemitism, with an exponential rise on social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok.
Learn how to spot antisemitism via the Translate Hate Glossary from the American Jewish Committee.
When you see it, report it and show support for the victims.
Find, follow, and amplify the voices of Jewish creators.
The need to follow Jewish voices on social media has never been more paramount. And fortunately, there are countless incredible Jewish creators on all the social media platforms to follow to gain perspective on Jewish issues, past and present.
Here are a few of my personal recommendations:
- Yair Rosenberg - Staff writer at The Atlantic - @Yair_Rosenberg
- Jonathan Greenblatt - CEO of the Anti-Defamation League - @JGreenblattADL
- Rabbi Jill Jacobs - Author and CEO of T’ruah - @rabbijilljacobs
- Rabbi Sandra Lawson - Director of Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism - @rabbisandra
- Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz - Dean of Valley Beit Midrash - @RavShmuly
- And me: Rabbi Mike Harvey - Author and interfaith leader - @rabbiharvey
- Rabbi Seth Goldstein - @rabbi_360
- Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr - @rabbirebeccaschorr
- Rabbi David Bogard - @ravbogard
- Rabbi Sandra Lawson - @rabbisandra
- Mayim Bialik - @mayimbailik
Check to see if you’ve engaged in accidental antisemitism.
Have you used expressions such as “Jew down”? Used terms such as “globalist,” “dual-loyalty,” “cabal,” “New World Order,” or “Soros”?
You may want to use this month to investigate the deeper, harmful meanings of these phrases. These are terms based on antisemitic conspiracy theories that are hateful and harmful to Jews in America and elsewhere.
While some have become all too common in political speech — even by people who hold high political offices— it is essential to know their roots and effects.
Explore AJC’s complete Translate Hate Glossary for more.
Learn how to cook a delicious meal from a Jewish recipe book.
Jewish food is a vast collection from everywhere Jews have lived, from the Middle East, to the Mediterranean, to Eastern Europe. There are so many delicious recipes and wonderful resources to pull from! Here are a few recipe book recommendations:
- “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York: A Cookbook” by Claudia Roden (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “The Jewish Cookbook” by Leah Koenig (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew” by Michael W. Twitty (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World: A Cookbook” by Joan Nathan (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen: A Cookbook” by Adeena Sussman (Bookshop) (Amazon)
- “Bubbe and Me in the Kitchen: A Kosher Cookbook of Beloved Recipes and Modern Twists” by Miri Rotkovitz (Amazon)
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Jewish American Heritage Month celebrated?
Jewish American Heritage Month is celebrated to commemorate and recognize the long history of Jews in America, their contributions to American society, and to acknowledge antisemitism that has been a part of American culture since the Jews first arrived.
What is the 2023 theme for Jewish American Heritage Month?
While many awareness months have a unique theme each year, Jewish American Heritage Month doesn’t currently have annual themes. Some individual Jewish organizations may use specific campaigns each year, but there is not a singular theme for this heritage month.
What are the main Jewish holidays celebrated every year?
Jews celebrate many holidays, major and minor, but here is a list of the most prominent:
- Shabbat - The Day of Rest/Sabbath (Weekly)
- Rosh Hashanah - The Jewish New Year (Fall)
- Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement (Fall)
- Sukkot - The Feast of Booths (Fall)
- Simchat Torah - The Rejoicing of the Torah (Fall)
- Hanukkah - The Rededication of the Temple (Winter)
- Purim - The Overcoming of Tyranny (Spring)
- Passover - The Escape from Slavery (Spring)