As you probably know from the beginning of May, it’s the 2nd annual, official, Jewish American Heritage Month! In honor of this year’s Tikkun Olam (healing the world) theme, we’re teaming up with our friends at The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network to bring you stories from members of our respective communities, who work to “Repair the World” daily, and the Jewish Americans that inspire them to do so.
Long eminent in philanthropic, social and communal work, the Jews of America, through the increased advantages at the disposal of the Yeshiva, will be able to broaden their field for the training of scholars and religious leaders for their people. This is of importance, not only to them but to our national life as a whole.
These remarks were conveyed by President Calvin Coolidge to mark the founding of Yeshiva University, a flagship Jewish educational institution in the Orthodox community.
Modern American Jews are keenly appreciative of the comforts afforded by their country. And yet, the concern of being deemed to particularistic, too focused on ourselves to the exclusion of others, remains a lingering concern, perhaps an evolutionary vestige of our own distant history of feeling excluded at the hands of others. Coolidge’s praise of a Jewish institution represents the fulfillment of our hope that as Jews, our pursuits will contribute to some greater good and be recognized as such.
During Jewish American Heritage Month, identifying Jewish heroes isn’t so much about celebrating one person, but <i>any</i> person seized by the spirit that characterizes the American dream; values-driven pioneering.
This spirit takes many forms in the Jewish community today: A lay leader navigates complex zoning ordinances to establish a community center. A high school student athlete instinctively recalls his EMT training and saves a competitor’s life on the field. A group of environmentally conscious friends build and scale up a farm to teach ethics through the agrarian lifestyle.
The process doesn’t always make the history pages or headlines. (The examples above did.) But all across the country and over the course of our nation’s history, we find instances of Jewish individuals whose determination to have an impact locally earns the admiration of their fellow Americans. And that is the essence of America, a land where everyone regardless of creed, origin or external appearance can exercise the right to achieve great things while preserving (or asserting) the democratic rights of others.
Rapid changes in telecommunications continue to shorten the distance between any two communities across the globe. As our consciousness of these communities continues to grow, so does the marketplace of opportunities to serve them through our activities.
This month, let us celebrate all Jewish individuals in America who have modeled good citizenship in our own communities, and apply these lessons as we incorporate more individuals around the world into our consciousness.
Think local, act global – and remember that local activity impacts the global, too.
Adam Soclof is Associate Director of Outreach and Partnerships for JTA.
Rachel Wallace, Repair the World Fellow
I was raised by two attorneys. I had to learn to hold my own in every discussion, and my dinner table discussions were inevitably about politics, law, and the issues of our time. My parents introduced my siblings and me to an array of legal issues and legal figures, ranging from flag burning to Ralph Nader.
A champion for civil rights, a defender of the indigent, and a strong supporter of Israel, dinner conversations about Alan Dershowitz stand out in my mind.
He is a model Jewish American figure who came from humble beginnings and has never forgotten his roots. He embodies the Jewish values with which I was raised – standing up for those in need, and using one’s knowledge, education, or other resources to give back.
Dershowitz stands up for the little guy, and engages in Tikkun tikkun Olam olam (repairing the world) by fighting for rights and freedoms for all, both in the United States and abroad.
I admire Dershowitz, as he became an attorney for the right reasons and uses his training for good – to ensure that all receive a fair trial, and that every individual receives a defense.
Through his trials, he single-handedly tests the legal system, guaranteeing that no one is taken advantage of by the law, a complex system that most Americans cannot understand without training.
Dershowitz not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. He applies his values to every individual, and believes that everyone has a right to a defense, even unpopular people. Over half of his cases are pro bono, in which he helps the David against the Goliath, and provides a voice to those who may otherwise not have one in the courtroom.
Having taken more pro bono cases than any other lawyer in private practice in the U.S., Dershowitz brings key elements of social justice into the legal world, fighting for those who deserve the right to a lawyer but cannot afford one.
Dershowitz defends the little guy on a global level, as well. He fights for Israel when it receives unfair and overwhelming attacks, and when no one in the international arena defends it. Nonetheless, he holds Israel to high standards and demands civil rights across the State of Israel. He is not afraid to criticize it to ensure maximum freedoms for its citizens.
Having battled anti-Israel sentiment and actions myself, including blatant anti-Israel hostility on campus, I see Dershowitz as an inspiration for his ability to fight an uphill battle defending Israel.
I not only admire Dershowitz’s standpoints and opinions, I admire his tenacity.
When reflecting on his legal career as a civil and human rights activist, Dershowitz stated, “I’m a very tough guy, and I fight hard, and I don’t give up. And that makes me friends, and that makes me enemies, and I know that.”
Dershowitz inspires me to stand up. I hope I will make friends this way, but know that that may not always be the case.
My Jewish American Heroes are my parents
Shlomo and Drora Shwirtz worked tirelessly to send my siblings and I to Jewish school and taught us by setting the best examples possible. They instilled in us a love for Israel, Judaism and entrepreneurship.
My father, working under the pen name Shlomo Shamir, spent over 40 years as the NY correspondent for Israel’s Ha’Aretz newspaper. Working from home, he was always available to help with homework when I was younger, and advice as I grew older. Even in retirement, he can’t stop writing and has transitioned into providing thought-pieces for a new generation of Israeli new media publications. As the eldest in the family, he has always taken great care to pass down the stories and lessons from his forbearers. Last year, with a lot of preparation, my father led a family “roots” trip to Poland, where we were all able to see the history of our family with our own eyes and learn more about where we come from.
In myriad different ways, my parents seem to complement each other perfectly. If my father nurtured my soul, my mother nurtured my body.
Throughout my life I’ve witnessed my mother take charge, organize, create and build both a family and a business. A female immigrant in New York, it couldn’t have been easy for her to become an entrepreneur and start a new business.
After years of hard work, my mother eventually ran a large communications consultancy and provided both meaningful inspiration and physical help for me to pursue my own dreams. I have vivid memories of visiting her in the office, seeing her in action and marveling at her acumen.
As the son of two hard-working immigrants with non-traditional jobs, I always knew I’d do something unique with my life. From an early age they supported my passion for the Internet – way before it was a credible career path.
They are my heroes and I owe them more than I can ever repay. I am forever grateful for the examples they set and support they provided (overtly and more subtly as well).
I can’t imagine crediting anyone more than my parents for the man I am today.