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Jewish Contributions to America

By Bonnie Saul Wilks
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Posted in Zealous Magazine on June 1, 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words still send shivers down my spine. I became doubly blessed when I discovered that Emma Lazarus, an American Jewish woman, wrote them. As an adult, Emma became concerned about the plight of immigrants to America and dedicated herself to penning essays against the anti-Semites of the day. In her famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” she eloquently expressed a belief in the United States as a haven for the world’s masses. Written in 1883, her poetry was engraved on a memorial plaque affixed to the Statute of Liberty in 1903.

Many Jewish immigrants have found respite and healing on the shores of The New World as they have entered through Emma Lazarus’ “golden door” of liberty. The Jewish population is more than six million, which barely comprises three percent of the populace; yet many have made enormous contributions to American society.

Jewish Influence in the New World

Jewish people have been involved in the history of America as early as its discovery. Seven Jewish men sailed with Columbus; and one important sailor, Rodrigo De Triana, is famed for sighting land first. Jewish men accompanied LaSalle as he explored Iowa and surveyed the Northwest Territories. In 1654, the first Jewish families arrived at New Amsterdam (New York City) stripped of most of their belongings and unable to pay for their passage to the New World. Thirty years later they established the first North American synagogue, called Shearith Israel.

Jews learned how to make a home in the New World, and they learned the art of trading with the Indians and growing crops. Later they opened businesses that led to great commerce. Both Jewish business men and soldiers in the colonies supported the patriot cause during the American Revolution. One Jewish patriot, Chaim Salomon, gave his wealth to the cause of independence by offering interest-free loans to government officials like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His generosity earned him the title “Financier of the Revolution.”

Jewish Influence in Broad and Narrow Places

The Jewish population grew with a great flood of immigration from Eastern Europe. Some went west and made fortunes. Many joined with other Americans in civic activities and public causes. They celebrated holidays like Thanksgiving and July 4th and became good Americans and good Jews at once. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873. Jewish Americans became more accepted in the USA, with more freedoms, than any other Jews in the world.

There have been multitudes of contributions made by Jewish people to America and the world. Here is an interesting glimpse: Albert Einstein, theory of relativity; Sandy Koufax, baseball legend; Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, conquered polio; Arthur Goldberg, Supreme Court Justice; Benny Goodman, the King of Swing; Henry Kissinger, statesman and Nobel Prize recipient; Mark Spitz, Olympic swimming star; Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Justice of the US Supreme Court; and Judith A. Resnik, second woman in space. These achievements have influenced the world in many of life’s broad and narrow places.

Jewish Influence in Film and Acting

American Jews dominated the film industry from its inception. Frequently, they were held back by anti-Semitism in other work arenas, so they wholeheartedly gave themselves to film making. Harry Cohn built Columbia Pictures in 1924, and we have him to thank for many things. The crazy antics of three Jews: Moses (Moe) and Jerome (Curly) Horowitz, and their friend, Larry Feinburg in “The Three Stooges” have stolen the hearts of every American generation since the birth of television.

Other famous Jewish names associated with film: Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry Warner. Many talented actors and comedians of film, radio, and television were and are Jewish: Milton Berle, Kirk Douglas, the Marx brothers, Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Woody Allen, Tony Randall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Alexander, Carl Reiner, Bette Midler, and Barbara Streisand.

The Ultimate Jewish Influence

One of the most significant contributions of Jews to America is the Judeo-Christian values that stand as the foundation of American society, whose roots connect to the Ten Commandments and the teaching of the Torah. Dennis Prager, Jewish author and speaker writes in an article, “What Does Judeo-Christian Mean?” for Jewish World Review:

“The United States of America is the only country in history to have defined itself as Judeo-Christian. While the Western world has consisted of many Christian countries and consists today of many secular countries, only America has called itself Judeo-Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values.”

Mr. Prager goes on to say that it is important for Americans to understand the meaning of Judeo-Christian. He writes that it is a belief in liberty as opposed to the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity. It is relevant that our coins carry two messages: “In God we trust” and “Liberty.”

The Puritans, who broke from an oppressive English government and founded America, considered themselves to be heirs of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) as well as the New Testament. They understood what it meant to be Jewish and identified with the Jewish people in many ways.

Early American values were steeped in a biblical worldview. Therefore, they had a strong sense of earthly justice, presenting a moral code of laws to society, and in the belief of a loving and forgiving God.

Lady Liberty, standing tall in the New York harbor, still calls to the “huddled masses, yearning to be free.” Many Jews have flocked to her “golden door” of opportunity and found safe haven. The achievements of Jews who came to these “teeming shores” should never be forgotten. For the contributions of biblical moral codes by which we base our lives, we cannot extend enough gratitude. These codes have anchored us and enabled us to soar.