Obama marks Jewish American Heritage Month

US president recounts story of Grant giving order to expel Jews from Tennessee as example of Jewish resilience.

Obama gives annual Passover holiday message 370 (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
Obama gives annual Passover holiday message 370
(photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama recalled one of the darker chapters in the history of US Jewry at a ceremony marking Jewish American Heritage Month Wednesday afternoon.
Before some 400 Jewish members of Congress, religious leaders and community advocates who gathered at the annual White House reception, Obama referred to the order that then- Union General Ulysses Grant gave expelling the Jews from Tennessee on December 17, 1862.
But Obama used that story to illustrate Jewish resilience and activism, as Jewish leaders protested the order and a Jewish merchant met personally with President Abraham Lincoln to urge the order be repealed. Lincoln revoked the order, and later Grant himself apologized for it. He went on to visit and donate to Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington when he himself was president.
“Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream,” Obama said. “But this country holds a special promise: that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right, our union can be made more perfect and our world can be repaired.”
Just as Obama’s words echoed the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, he also echoed his own political stump speech when he told the crowd, “Here at home we have to rebuild an America where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules.”
This year’s crowd was heavy on members of Congress and Washington Jewish leaders, in contrast to previous years when luminaries such as former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Sandy Kofax and author Judy Blume attended.
One political insider suggested that there would be more big names from the American Jewish community at an event awarding President Shimon Peres the presidential medal of freedom later in June.
The Jewish American Heritage Month reception came the day after Obama dropped by an hour-long meeting Conservative rabbis held with White House chief of staff Jack Lew on Tuesday.
The president discussed issues ranging from Iran and Israel’s security to health care and the safety net, according to participants.
“He especially encouraged us to carry forward Judaism’s message of communal responsibility and the religious mandate to seek the welfare of all people in society,” said Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.