May is Jewish American Heritage Month, nationally designated in 2006. Jewish immigration to America dates back to 1654 and peaked from the 1820s through 1924.

My great grandparents immigrated via Ellis Island and Canada in the early 20th century; my grandmother had a copy of the ship manifest proudly posted in her dining room when I was a child. Like other immigrant groups, Jews immigrated to America seeking to leave economic hardships and religious persecution elsewhere. Jewish communities developed throughout the United States. In 1844 the first congregation in Alabama formed in Mobile. The first three Jewish families in Birmingham arrived in 1873. A small group of Birmingham reform Jewish families started Temple Emanu-El, now on Highland Ave, in 1882. Currently, ~9000 Jews (.2% of adults) live in Alabama, with most Jews living in the largest cities. Jews comprise 2.4% of American adults.

The Jewish population in America remains diverse, with individuals having varied observances and cultural practices. Ashkenazi (European descendant) and Sephardic (descendants from Spain, Portugal, N Africa, and the Middle East) share beliefs, yet have different cultural practices. Foods common to each group highlight this. Classic Ashkenazi dishes include bagels, corned beef, and gefilte fish while the Sephardic culture brings us burekas, hummus, and pita.

The history of the Jewish community in America is multifaceted, with stories of achievement and resilience, but also darker times of persecution. Antisemitism is unfortunately on the rise, as highlighted in recent attacks on synagogues across the country and hate speech circulating in all forms of media. Jewish American Heritage Month aims to celebrate the role of Jews in American culture, while reminding us of the need to remain vigilant against antisemitism.

Rachel Kassel, M.D., Ph.D.
Pediatric Gastroenterology

For more information on Jewish American heritage and our local Jewish community, visit the links below:

National Jewish American Heritage Month

A Proclamation on Jewish American Heritage Month, 2023 | The White House

Library of Congress Exhibition on Jewish Life in America

Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL)

Birmingham Jewish Federation

Levite Jewish Community Center

Chabad of Alabama