What can the American experience teach us about being Jewish?

Over the centuries, millions of immigrants have come to America seeking freedom and opportunity. Ellis Island, where so many of our people docked on their arrival from Europe, is only a short distance from the Statue of Liberty. This proud woman has become the torchbearer for freedom and liberty. As Emma Lazarus’s poetic words emblazoned there declare: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

It is staggering to think how many millions of immigrants came to these shores and found what they were looking for: freedom and opportunity. And they grasped hold of it with both hands.

The inspiration behind this very website is, of course, the Rebbe. An immigrant from both the oppressive USSR regime and the diabolical Nazis, the Rebbe was the dominant Jewish spiritual leader of the 20th century. He took full advantage of America’s freedom to, literally, transform Jewish life in America and around the world.

But the “land of the free” had its own set of unspoken expectations. The old American Melting Pot placed a not-so-subtle pressure on immigrants to lose their foreign identities and cultural trappings and embrace the American way of life.

The newly arrived greenhorns were told to become genuine Yankees. Become a real American. Drop your past, your history, your own family culture. Mix, blend, melt, and Americanize!

And many did just that, going great lengths to melt into the American scene and not be “too Jewish.”

Hymie Cohen, an American immigrant who made it big in business, wanted to blend in with his Gentile associates, so he applied to join their very posh country club. The only problem was that, in those days, Jews were not allowed to be members. So he changed his name, his accent, his dress style, and applied for membership. Before being accepted, though, he had to be interviewed by the chairman of the club, the very distinguished Mr. Clement Andrew Buckingham III.

At the interview, Hymie (now Horatio Cowen) couldn’t help noticing that the genteel chairman had some distinctly Jewish features. So, after a while, he broached the subject ever so gently. “Mr. Buckingham, eh, excuse me, but might you possibly have any Jewish family?”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Cowen,” shouted the chairman as he stood up at full height. “I’ll have you know that I am a proud Presbyterian, my father was a proud Presbyterian, and my zayde, alav hashalom, was a proud Presbyterian!”

Today, we are very conscious and sensitive to allowing people to retain their own identities, as different as they may be.

Historically, the American War of Independence was fought, in significant measure, for religious freedom. And this has certainly been achieved for all people and cultures. By now, America has had a Black President, a Jewish candidate for Vice President, several Jewish Secretaries of State and Jewish Supreme Court Justices!

Bottom line? There is nothing to intimidate Jews from standing tall in our own boots. Thankfully, we can practice our faith fully, with no compromises needed to ensure our acceptance in society. We can be proud Americans and proud Jews; the two are not a contradiction. There is no need to sacrifice our personal, spiritual, cultural, Jewish identity to embrace our status as full-fledged Americans.

Today, America recognizes the importance of retaining our cultural identities. Let’s hope we do too!