Did you know May is Jewish American Heritage Month?
In 2006, President George W. Bush declared May as a time to recognize the contributions of Jewish Americans to our nation’s history and culture.
The first Jewish immigrants came to America in 1654 to escape religious persecution. Although Jewish Americans faced bigotry here too, they built thriving communities in Charleston, New York, and other major cities. They also enriched our nation’s culture and contributed to education, science, and the arts.
This month gives you the perfect opportunity to dive deeper into US history and include new voices during your social studies block. Here are 10 Jewish Americans you can highlight using Studies Weekly Social Studies:
(NOTE: You will need to be logged in to your Studies Weekly Online account to access the digital articles about these individuals.)
In 1772, Jewish immigrant Haym Salomon traveled from Poland to New York City and became a successful financial broker. During the American Revolution, he was arrested by the British army and forced to interpret for German soldiers, who he secretly encouraged to desert the red coats. Eventually, he escaped and set up a new business in Philadelphia.
Seeing the Continental Congress struggle to finance the war, Solomon raised money by getting loans from France and other countries. He also made personal loans to the government and American leaders like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. Thanks to his generosity and financial skills, the US won its independence. Solomon continued to assist the government with its financial problems and worked to overturn laws that kept non-Christians from holding office.
As a teenage boy, Samuel Gompers moved with his family from London to New York City where he and his father worked at a cigar factory. Appalled by the long hours and low wages, he organized the Cigar Workers’ National Union. Later, he and other union leaders formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) to have a greater impact. Gompers became one of the FOTLU’s officers.
In 1886, he helped reorganize the FOTLU into the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and became its first president. He fought for better wages, shorter work days, safer working conditions, and the end of child labor. His achievements inspired future labor unions for years to come.
After watching the Wright brothers demonstrate their Military Flyer, Jewish immigrant Arthur L. Welsh applied for their flying school but was rejected. After being turned down several more times, he traveled to Dayton, Ohio to convince the Wright Brothers to let him in, and it worked. He became one of their top pilots, traveling with the exhibition team and setting new flight records. Sadly, his plane crashed June 11, 1912, killing him instantly. Welsh’s determination and flying skills paved the way for future Jewish immigrants and minorities in aviation.
Louis Brandeis was known as The People’s attorney when he worked as a lawyer in Boston because he always tried to help “the little guy” from being taken over by big businesses. Woodrow Wilson noticed his legal talents, so when he became president of the United States in 1913, he elected him to serve on the Supreme Court, making him the first Jewish American to hold that office. Many people opposed a Jew holding that position, but Brandeis proved worthy of it by fighting for those who couldn’t help themselves.
Born in 1911 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Florence Melton invented shoulder pads and slippers made with foam rubber, which became international successes. As she got older, she wanted to learn more about her Jewish Heritage and realized there were very few programs for adult learners, so she founded the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish learning. Today, there are over 30 Melton learning schools where over 30,000 have graduated.
When she was just four years old, Bessie Margolin’s mother died and her father sent her to live in the New Orleans Jewish Orphans Home. But that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the first women to graduate from Tulane Law School and earning her PhD at Yale University in 1932.
During her career, she fought for American workers to receive minimum wages and overtime pay, won 21 Supreme Court cases, and helped prosecute some of the Nazis responsible for the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II. Margolin also assisted in forming the National Organization of Women, which worked to end violence against women and promote gender equality.
After his older sister taught him to play piano, 15-year-old Aaron Copland decided he wanted to become a composer. He studied music in France for three years before returning to the US with the goal to create a distinct American sound. At first, he focused on jazz but then later shifted to classical music, drawing inspiration from Mexican, Jewish, and Russian influences. He wrote many ballets, including Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote film scores and won an Academy Award for the 1949 movie, The Heiress.
Nazis imprisoned Elie Wiesel and his family in a concentration camp during WWII when he was a teenage boy. Both of his parents and one of his sisters died during the war. After the war ended, he reunited with his other sisters and moved to New York City where he spent the rest of his life writing about his experiences. He wrote over 50 books. His most popular one, Night (1955), sold more than 10 million copies in over 30 languages. He received many honorary awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, for speaking out against violence and persecution.
In 1947, Jewish American doctor Jonas Salk began developing a vaccine for polio – a disease that infected 60,000 children and killed 3,000 in 1952 alone, leaving thousands of survivors permanently paralyzed. Dr. Salk tested his vaccine on a large group of children in 1954 with fantastic results. Thanks to Dr. Salk’s research, polio cases in the US dropped from almost 29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. Polio is extremely rare in the US today.
Named one of America’s 100 most influential women, Shoshana Cardin dedicated her life to serving the Jewish community. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and excelled in school and youth leadership. After raising four children, she joined local groups to improve the lives of Jews and women in Maryland.
In 1984, she became the first president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and in 1990, served as the first president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represented the interests of American Jews to the US government. She met with international leaders, including President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to combat anti-Semitism and improve the quality of life for Jews worldwide.
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