We are a nation of immigrants. Little has been more fortuitous than the rich mélange of tribes and cultures that arrived from foreign shores to populate and share our land.
Among them were three major waves of Jewish immigrants whose contributions are now being celebrated during May's Jewish American Heritage Month.
The first wave -- 23 Jews -- arrived in 1654 from today's Brazil. They were escaping the onslaught of the Inquisition which imperiled their lives. After being allowed to immigrate, they demanded and received the right to participate as equals in defending their adopted colony.
The second, in the early to mid 1800s, were mostly from today's Germany. They too were escaping persecution as efforts to change the politics of that part of the world brought strife.
The third, and by far the largest group -- roughly two million Jews -- arrived impoverished from the Pale of Russia. Though Jews have cherished education for most of 2,000 years, the harsh circumstances of the Pale left most of these Jews illiterate. Yet within a generation, 20 percent of the student body at Harvard was Jewish, as was 40 percent at Columbia, and 80 percent at Hunter College.
Every immigrant group contributes to the richness and success of our country. But consider what this small group, just two percent of our population, has contributed:
- America's garment industry was largely the creation of Jews whose tailoring talent was augmented with Isaac Singer's sewing machine to create today's ready-to-wear industry.
- America's major symphony orchestras, since their inception, have been led by Jews for a third of the time.
- Jews have won 26 percent of the Kennedy Center Honors which go to our most outstanding performing artists.
- They have won 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction.
- Two of our nine Supreme Court Justices are Jewish.
- They have earned the Best Director Oscar 37 percent of the time.
- Of BusinessWeek's 50 most generous philanthropists, 38 percent have been Jews.
- Jews started or shaped every major Hollywood movie studio as well as our three radio and television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC).
- Half or more of all major department and specialty retail store chains were started by Jews.
- In high technology, companies like Dell, Qualcom, Google, Oracle, and Intel are just a tiny portion of the leading high tech companies created and led by Jews.
The huge premium Jews have placed on education, on rearing strong families, on pushing for innovation and entrepreneurship, and on their sense of duty to help make the world better (tikkun olam) are but a tiny sample of cultural values they have added to our melting pot. They have enriched our country and deserve being celebrated during Jewish American Heritage month.
Steven L. Pease is author of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement. You can follow Steven on jewishachievementblog.com, www.jewishachievement.com, and www.Goldenageofjewishachievement.com