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From Haven to Home: At Home in America

Since their arrival in America, Jews have faced the difficulty of maintaining a separate group identity in an open society that embraced them as equals. Nineteenth-century efforts to unify American Jews around a common liturgical rite failed. However apart Jews stood, they resisted religious uniformity as much as their fellow Christians did. Over time, the Jewish community became ever more diverse, particularly as the Conservative and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism emerged in the twentieth century, joining the more established Orthodox and Reform movements, all of which subsequently broadened still further.

The nature of American society, with its acceptance of religious diversity, provided America's Jews with an unprecedented sense of security and safety. The feeling of being “at home” in America has varied from immigrant wave to immigrant wave, and even from person to person. By 1950, most American Jews were native-born, and a great many had participated in two world wars, experienced the Great Depression, witnessed the Holocaust and its aftermath, and supported the establishment of the State of Israel. In these post-World War II years, Jews became a vital force in the political process, demonstrated on behalf of oppressed co-religionists abroad and civil rights at home, and played a significant role in the cultural life of the nation. This series of transformative events — along with a fully developed network of religious and voluntary organizations — contributed to a shift in the Jewish perception of America from a safe “haven” to a true “home.”

Influenced by the pluralism of American society that encouraged diversity and multiple associations, the American Jewish community rapidly became internally pluralistic, establishing multiple religious movements, cultural affiliations, and advocacy groups to meet individual and communal needs. This pluralism is well reflected in the profusion of American haggadot, the home ritual used at the Passover seder. Hundreds of American editions of the haggadah have appeared, from traditional to innovative and reflecting a full range of religious, cultural, and political positions. The very first American haggadah appeared in New York in 1837 and included the declaration that it was the “First American Edition,” implying, correctly, that many more editions would follow. Through these haggadot one can trace the journey of America's Jews from sojourners in a temporary haven to citizens at home in America.

Sources: Library of Congress