Jewish American Heritage Month
By Cheyanne Perkins
May has arrived, and it is a busy month for many of us! Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day are all rapidly approaching, not to mention the end of the school year. But did you know that May is also Jewish American Heritage Month? As we enter the fifth month of the year, let’s take a moment to examine how this annual commemoration came to be, and why it should matter to Texans.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared April 21-28 to be Jewish Heritage Week, after a resolution had been passed by Congress to do so. Such holidays and observances are traditionally established by proclamation of the President, and the purpose of this particular request was to recognize the significant role of Jewish Americans in building and shaping the United States. As President Carter stated, “…April is a particularly appropriate month because it contains events of special significance to the Jewish calendar…”
For the next 25 years, Jewish Heritage Week would be observed by presidential proclamation in April or May. Then, in 2006, Congress created another resolution, which asked the President to establish American Jewish History Month. This would extend the importance of the commemoration. On April 20 of that year, President George W. Bush declared that May 2006 would be Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM). Thus, May 2016 marks the 10th official anniversary of JAHM.
Jewish people have been in America for hundreds of years—since Europeans began emigrating here in earnest. In 1654, the continent’s first Jewish congregation was established. The first recorded Jewish person in Texas is Samuel Isaacs, one of the immigrants who came to the Mexican colony with Stephen F. Austin in 1821. Many of the first Jewish settlements were located in east Texas. However, the mid-late 1800s saw the spread of Jewish inhabitants across the state. By the turn of the century, congregations had been planted in all directions, and the Jewish population of Texas numbered around 30,000 people in 1920.
As the centuries progressed, the situation for Jewish inhabitants of other countries, particularly those of eastern Europe, grew more and more alarming. Jewish populations were greatly restricted in where they could live and work, and were often the victims of violent attacks called pogroms. By the end of the 19th century, the hatred had grown unbearable for many. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, over a third of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire had fled, with an estimated three million refugees entering the United States.
In response to the multitude of immigrants arriving in America as a result of these pogroms, various European and American organizations were established, with the goal of helping them find homes throughout the United States. It was thought that a more even distribution of immigrant populations would help combat problems caused by the potential anti-Semitism that would result from a large influx of new Jewish arrivals in the eastern United States. Being a fairly prominent port city, Galveston, Texas was chosen as the main destination, and thus began the Galveston Plan. Jewish immigrants would arrive in the city, and from there continue to other parts of the country, mainly the southwest.
1910. Panorama #1, Galveston, Texas. Haines Photo Co., via the Library of Congress.
In the summer of 1907, 56 refugees arrived on the Cassel. Over the next seven years, 10,000 people in total would pass through the port as part of the Galveston Plan. The operation stopped in 1914 due to a variety of factors, including tensions among the groups involved in administration of the plan, and increasing anti-immigration feeling throughout the country.
The 1920s saw the enforcement of immigration quotas, which greatly limited the amount of people allowed to enter the United States. The 1930s, and the entrance of the United States into World War II, brought great concern about what was happening to the Jewish people in Europe. In response, Jewish communities in Texas formed organizations to rescue refugees and survivors of the Holocaust.
1964. Lyndon B. Johnson, via the Library of Congress.
It was during the late 1930s that Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan who would become President of the United States, launched a dramatic and secret plan to save European Jews, known as Operation Texas. Using his political connections and a trusted circle of friends, Johnson was able to provide immigration documents to refugees and bring them to the United States through Texas. Even today, information about the plan is somewhat hard to find. Nevertheless, David Novy—the son of one of Johnson’s main partners—believes that hundreds of Jewish people were saved from the Holocaust thanks to Operation Texas.
Our state continues to have a thriving Jewish population. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities is a great resource that can be used to lean about Jewish history in your area. The Texas Jewish Historical Society is also a good place to find information.
Last year, in recognition of JAHM 2015, President Barack Obama declared that, "Our nation shares an obligation to condemn and combat anti-Semitism and hatred wherever it exists, and we remain committed to standing against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust." The THGC strives to do exactly that—educate all Texans about the dangers of hatred of any kind, and how its influences can lead to irreparable damage and pain. This has been seen over and over again, in the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Burundi, Darfur, and now Syria and Iraq. Perhaps greater knowledge of observations such as JAHM would be an important part of that education, by demonstrating the value of all cultures and peoples.Tags: galveston the galveston plan holocaust jewish american heritage month lyndon b johnson may operation texas pogrom thgc