By AUDREY FISCHER
When the Space Shuttle Atlantis launches May 14 from the Kennedy Space Center, NASA astronaut Garrett E. Reisman—the first Jewish crew member on the International Space Station—will be carrying the proclamation establishing May as Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM).
Signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, the legislation was the culmination of efforts by individuals and groups in the Jewish community that resulted in resolutions introduced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). They urged the president to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture.
That was the first piece of legislation that Wasserman Schultz—then a freshman congresswoman—succeeded in enacting. That is a fact that makes the first female Jewish member of Congress from Florida proud.
“It was a challenge,” said Wasserman Schultz, who delivered the keynote address for the Library’s 2010 celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month. She praised the Library for “stepping up” by celebrating the event each year, with special programs organized by Peggy Pearlstein, head of the Library’s Hebraic Section, and for reaching out to other government agencies to build a JAHM web portal (www.jewishheritagemonth.gov). The congresswoman officially launched the site following her remarks.
“I have a true affection for the Library and Dr. Billington,” said Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations. “The Library has advanced light years under Dr. Billington’s leadership for the past 23 years. The forward-thinking visionary he has been cannot be overstated.”
Wasserman Schultz also acknowledged several people in the room who worked with her to establish Jewish American Heritage Month, including Daniel S. Mariaschin of B’nai B’rith International and William C. Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA); and Abby Schwartz, national coordinator of the Jewish American Heritage Coalition.
Founded in 2007, the JAHM Coalition is composed of the directors of major national Jewish historical and cultural organizations, including the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, Jewish Women’s Archive, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Council of American Jewish Museums, Jewish Museum of Florida and the Jewish Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The JAHM Coalition’s website at www.jahm.uslists celebratory events being held throughout the country in such places at Congregation Shearith Israel, established in New York in 1654. That year marks the anniversary of the arrival in New Amsterdam (New York City) of 23 Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil, which passed from Dutch to Portuguese rule.
“When I was first elected to Congress, I was approached by the Jewish Museum of Florida and South Florida Jewish community leaders about a problem that still exists—the not-so-random acts of violence and bigotry against Jews.” According to the congresswoman, 65 percent of hate crimes are anti-semitic.
“Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population,” she said. “Therefore, many people either never interact with the Jewish community or have minimal interaction. There is a lack of understanding that Judaism is a religion and a culture.”
Wasserman-Schultz cited such notable Jewish Americans as Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and clothier Levi Strauss.
“We have him to thank for our jeans,” joked Wasserman Schultz.
On a serious note, the congresswoman explained, “We believe that a yearly celebration fosters harmony between communities and raises awareness in the non-Jewish community of the significant contributions Jews have made in all aspects of American life for the past 355 years, up through the 21st century, that give us the life we enjoy today.”