Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty. The promise of religious liberty and religious freedom. American Jewish history begins with these images and concepts.

From the first Jewish immigrants some 350 years ago to the significant Jewish migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States offered opportunity, freedom and safety. While we have come a long way since then, the welcoming light of America still shines bright.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. We have a lot to celebrate.

Our American Jewish history is rich and diverse. Beginning with Sephardi Jews who emigrated as early as 1654, continuing with German Jews and followed by Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, our Jewish American tradition has been nourished and energized by newcomers.

And it was the mixture of those cultures, observances and backgrounds that created the engine that built today’s proud and successful American Jewish community. Soviet Jews, Israeli Jews and those who embraced Judaism through conversion came later, and added to our complex DNA, energizing American Jewry’s move toward diversity and pluralism.

Of the 18 opulent, jaw-dropping Jewish houses of worship featured on MyJewishLearning.com’s “The Most Instagrammable Synagogues in the World,” only two are in the United States. This is so, even as American Jewry has criticized its own “edifice complex.”

But since our democratic republic does not promote religion, does not elevate monarch-like religious leaders to roles in the state bureaucracy and doesn’t build governmental houses of worship, we must promote our own religions and build our houses of worship as a means of self-expression, rather than as symbols of a ruling government.

American Jewish heritage celebrates the fact that religion in America is voluntary, decentralized, democratic and competitive. We live and practice our Judaism side by side with our co-religionists, looking with friendship to our neighbors and reaching out to each other in solidarity in times of threat or need.

Jewish heritage and Jewish life have flourished in America. We are a vital part of what has become — apart from the State of Israel — the most welcoming and embracing country for Jews in the world. Jewish life in the U.S. is vibrant and strong. We are the second largest Jewish population in the world, and are well-organized and focused.

There is more Jewish learning, prayer, observance and pride in Jewish life, culture and communal well-being than at any time in our history. And we continue to care for each other and for others in a manner that helps us fulfill the mandate to be a light unto the nations.

Which brings us to one other aspect of Jewish life in America that distinguishes us: the elevation of tikkun olam — repairing the world — to a communal and cultural value, and the adoption of social justice as a quasi-religious mandate. These core values help define our Jewish American community and culture, and we celebrate them as part of our proud Jewish American heritage. JN

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