Why celebrate 350 years

Across the country, Jewish organizations and institutions have begun celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jews in America.

Synagogues, JCCs, federations — in fact, seemingly everyone — at some point in the coming months will host a performance, sponsor a lecture or stage an art exhibit related to the milestone.

We think this national effort is most worthwhile, and the Jewish community should support all these activities. Our series of cover stories this week provides readers with plenty of context and perspective on the 350th.

Yet why does there seem to be relatively little excitement about this moment in our history?

Admittedly, there is something about the 350th that smacks a bit of taking medicine or vitamin pills. You know it’s good for you but it doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse.

Maybe it’s because 350 is not as round a number as we would like. Four hundred years. Five hundred years. Now that’s an anniversary.

Perhaps it’s because the date marks a rather obscure event: the arrival in New Amsterdam of 23 Portuguese Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil (and the Inquisition). While this is indeed an event worth commemorating, Brazilian American Jews do not constitute one of the larger Jewish communities here.

Perhaps because so many American Jews trace their ancestry back to a much more recent arrival at Ellis Island, the 350th seems to mark an event lost in the mists of time.

Yet most likely this apparent lack of excitement over the anniversary is due to something quite positive.

American Jews are so comfortable, so entrenched, so at home in this country, celebrating our long presence here almost seems like throwing a party for the air we breathe.

Aside from Israel, America has been the most welcoming place Jews have known for 350 years. At no other place and time in history have we been so free to flourish and prosper.

Chalk it up to human nature. A long-thriving community like ours is just not apt to rejoice over something we basically take for granted. Our freedom is inviolate here. We feel it in our bones.

Which ironically leads us to encourage American Jews to snap out of their contentment, if only for a short time, to consciously celebrate our blessed existence in this country.

Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” American Jews should not wait until our freedoms are gone in order to appreciate them. Let’s do so now, and break out the champagne to honor this 350th anniversary.