The Miracle of American Judaism

On a late summer day in September 1654, a small French frigate named the Ste. Catherine, sailed into the port of New Amsterdam.  Most of the ship’s passengers – “twenty-three souls, big and little” – were Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, who had been expelled by the Portuguese.  They were seeking a new home in a city of extraordinary religious diversity.

While they were not the first Jews in America, they became the foundation for what would become one of the largest, most prosperous, and most diverse Jewish communities in history.  The story of Jewish America and American Jews is the ultimate story of the American dream.

The wall built by our founding fathers between religion and state created fertile ground for the flowering of Jewish religious and cultural expression.  New understandings of what it means to be Jewish have blossomed here in nearly every variety: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, Chabad, Renewal and more each day.  More than 600 Jewish entrepreneurial initiatives and companies have formed in the last ten years.  Jewish studies departments can be found at small and large colleges and universities across the country.

Despite our experience of prejudice and anti-Semitism, there has never been in the history of the world a home outside the land of Israel more welcoming to the Jewish people or one in which we have better integrated into the larger fabric of civil life than here in America.

The 2010 Census estimates that there are 6.5 million Jews in the United States today, just over two percent of the total population.  And yet today there are twenty-two Jewish members of the House of Representatives, eleven Jewish members of the Senate and three Jewish members of the Supreme Court.  Jews have excelled in nearly every avenue of the arts, in the sciences, in business, and even a few in professional sports. 

This year, the celebration of Chanukah begins on Thanksgiving Day.  Thanksgiving is a time when we are asked to consider with gratitude the blessings of our lives, as did the early settlers in Massachusetts.  It has become a celebration of the gift of the American Dream, a dream of living in a land where we are free to express our religious conscience precisely as we choose, with no compulsion or interference from the state.

The Maccabees in ancient times were also fighting for religious liberation, so that the land of Israel might be restored to her people for freedom to lead a Jewish life.  The celebration of Chanukah harkens us back to the restoration and dedication of the Temple which had been wrested from us by King Antiochus. 

As we celebrate both of these festivals of freedom, we remember that “Chanukah” means “dedication”.  We should use this time to think of what it is in our Jewish American story that we have chosen to honor with our life choices.  Have we used the freedom America afforded us to pursue a Jewish life unfettered by external pressures and forces, or to use that freedom to walk away from the covenant and our Jewish heritage?  Have we honored the sacrifice of so many who fought to defend American ideals so that we can enjoy the privilege of the freedoms that make America great?  Have we done enough to spread the promise of American opportunity and freedom to those who are vulnerable here:  those stuck in the cycle of poverty, those who are newly emigrated, those who suffer from disability or prejudice? 

This year, as we celebrate Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we think of the immortal words of John F. Kennedy, whose yahrtzeit we observed last week: “Ask not what your country (and your people) can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Let us give thanks for the American dream, and let us see that it is spread to all who call America home.

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