AJC CEO Ted Deutch reflects on Jewish American Heritage Month, highlighting the historical contributions of Jewish Americans and discussing the concept of heroism in the face of rising antisemitism. Ted also shares what it means to be a hero today, especially in the wake of 10/7, and who he considers to be among his own heroes. 

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  • (0:40) Ted Deutch

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Episode Transcript:

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Amid the recent rise of antisemitism and the unease that brings, we are marking the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month. This is a time when so many of us in the Jewish community are feeling misunderstood, unwelcome, and confronting hatred. But the American Jewish experience is so much more than standing up to hatred and bigotry. Over the past 370 years, Jewish Americans have served in government, the military, they've won Nobel Prizes, headed universities and corporations, advanced medicine, the arts and justice. 

Here to celebrate Jewish American Heritage is AJC's CEO Ted Deutch. Ted, welcome back to People of the Pod.

Ted Deutch:  

Thank you very much.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

Ted, you began serving in Congress in 2010 A few years after a Jewish American Heritage Month was first proclaimed in 2006 Can you tell us a little bit of the history behind Jewish American Heritage or what we like to call JAHM.

Ted Deutch:  

Well, Jewish American Heritage Month has been around for almost 20 years. Congress passed a resolution that was led by my former colleague Debbie Wasserman Schultz to acknowledge the important contributions that Jewish Americans have made throughout our history. And in 2006, President George W. Bush designated the month of May to be Jewish American Heritage Month, and there have been presidential proclamations every year since.

This year, President Biden proclaimed May to be Jewish American Heritage Month and outlined the history of the American Jewish community and the fact that Jewish American culture is so inextricably woven into the fabric of our country. He talked about the importance of Jewish American suffragettes and activists and leaders marching for civil rights and women's rights and voting rights. He talked about the contributions of, of Jewish men and women in uniform and on the Supreme Court. And throughout multiple administrations. It's an acknowledgement that we are really forming an important part of the fabric of this country. And we have to spend time thinking about that, particularly in a moment when so many are really taking positions and saying things that challenge our contributions that are made, and that really put so many of us in the Jewish community on edge, make us feel at risk. This is an important opportunity to really stand proudly as Jewish Americans.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

You know, during the month of March, Women's History Month, I always discover a new role model, a particularly amazing woman that I never knew existed. And the same is often true during Jewish American Heritage Month. But in reverse, I discovered that people whom I always thought to be amazing, and heroes in my book are Jewish. Do you have heroes growing up who you discovered were, or maybe you already knew, were Jewish?

Ted Deutch:  

It's interesting. Our community is, I think, always looking to elevate those from our community who make a meaningful impact in society. 

I remember when I learned about Eddie Jacobson, that was one of those moments for me. Eddie Jacobson was a friend, business partner of Harry Truman. And, he played such a really interesting role during the war when, when he was focused on the plight of the Jews in Europe. His friendship led him to go advocate with then-Senator Truman to urge the us to do more for the Jews who are being discriminated against, harassed. Ultimately those who were being sent to concentration camps.

That was a relationship that he had, and was able to use to help strengthen his own community. 

And what he did that I think was even more important than that, was following the war when he understood that there was this opportunity for the rebirth of the modern state of Israel. He went to urge his, again, his friend, then-President Truman, to to meet with Chaim Weitzman, the leader of the Zionist movement, and President Truman was reluctant, but because of that relationship, that that personal relationship, Eddie Jacobson was able to convince the President to take that meeting, which then ultimately led to the recognition of the State of Israel by the United States just minutes after it declared, Israel declared its independence, being the first country to to recognize Israel.

He’s a hero in the history of the Jewish people. He played a really important role, I think, in the history of the country. And I think most people had no idea or may never have heard of him. 

There are also the heroes within the Jewish community that in Jewish American Heritage Month we have the chance to think about people who impacted us, impacted the way we work to strengthen the Jewish community who maybe aren't famous at all.

When I think about the people, the Jewish leaders that I was privileged to know when I was a college student. Our [University of Michigan] Hillel director, Michael Brooks, and the professors who helped guide us where, at a moment years ago when we were facing antisemitism. When the student newspaper ran this series of outrageously anti-Zionist, antisemitic editorials, unfortunately, sounding familiar, the support from these heroic adults, for those of us who were students, to go out and to hold rallies and to protest outside of the student newspaper, to make sure that people understood what the facts were–that kind of heroism really resonates because it's a reminder of what we can do for young people now at a moment when they're looking to others in the community to help support them.

It really carries right through to, to the work that I get to do every day, that I'm so privileged to do and, and really the ways that all of us can work behind the scenes to help lift up the voices of Jewish young people today.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

It's interesting that you kind of bring up who the heroes were for yourself when you were younger. I mean, I'm sure I'm sure you've been to baseball games, Yankees, Cubs, Mighty Mussels, whoever your team might be.

Ted Deutch:  

The Mighty what?

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

The Mighty Mussels, they're in Fort Myers, Florida. It's also the name of my son's baseball team. They're named after minor league teams. But I'm sure you've been to these games where the announcer calls the heroes to stand, be recognized by the crowd. And everyone knows that the announcer is calling on veterans, right members of the military, first responders, and they are undoubtedly heroes. But in those moments, I often wish they would list all the many types of heroes when they do that. The doctors, the nurses, the teachers, God bless them. 

How do you define hero?

Ted Deutch: 

Well, you're exactly right, and what those moments feel like. And first of all, I think it's important that we acknowledge injury, Jewish American Heritage Month, the contributions of Jewish Americans throughout our nation's history, in defending our country, we've talked before, I mean, I talk a lot about my father, who graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army to go fight the Nazis, and earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. And all of the people like him who, whether it was in World War Two, or Korea or Vietnam, right on through the wars, in the Middle East wars in Afghanistan and, and in Iraq, the contributions from Jewish Americans who were proudly Jewish, as they served our country, those are really important to remember and every time at a sporting event where they ask the heroes to rise, I think it's important to think about that, you know, down here in South Florida, when they do that, at sporting events, it's not unusual, especially if they're recognizing someone from World War Two or the conflict in Korea in particular, it's just not that unusual for the veterans to be Jewish Americans. And there's always an extra amount of pride that you feel when they make those announcements. I do think it's important to think about all that we've contributed in defense of the country. 

But you're right. There are so many people who are heroes, who serve our country in other ways. We had a moment during COVID, where I think everybody recognized the heroism of our first responders, our doctors and nurses and people went in when COVID was raging, and people knew so very little about it. And every day, they went to work to take care of people and help save lives. And there was that moment. And I think it's important that we have more moments like that. 

It's true for police officers and firefighters and first responders. Again, too often, I think we sort of take for granted the work that so many people do, putting themselves out in service of others. 

And you mentioned teachers, there's just no question that the contributions of teachers and so many Jewish teachers among them, who have committed their lives to helping prepare the next generation, to help them become citizens in our country and understand our history and learn what they need to be able to thrive in our society and in their lives. They're doing an incredible service, and should be recognized as well. 

And so when we think about Jewish American Heritage Month, look, I'm all for thinking about, getting back to athletes. I'm all for thinking about Alex Bregman from the Astros. And for those of us who are hockey fans, it's the glory days for Jews in hockey, and Zach Hyman and the Hughs and others, but it's the people that we've not heard of whose names we don't know, who come from our own families that we need to hold up and think about as the real heroes for the work they do every day in their lives. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

It has been seven months now, since terrorists attacked Israel on October 7. And I'm curious if in your opinion, the last seven months have changed what it means to be a hero, especially in the Jewish world.

Ted Deutch: 

Well, there are all kinds of people in the Jewish world right now who are doing heroic work since 10/7 in ways that either weren't necessary, or were unappreciated before 10/7. Because the challenge There's so much greater. 

We were just talking about people who served the country. IDF soldiers are heroes and what the IDF has done since 10/7 to defend Israel in the face of the horrific attacks by Hamas is heroic, and the loss of life is painful. And so even as we mourn those soldiers who have been killed, we have to take a moment to appreciate the heroism. 

But there are others, the hostage families who traveled to New York and Washington and around the world and we at AJC are so privileged to work with so many of them to help give them voice and make sure that they're heard. But as they struggle now, for more than 200 days that their loved ones have been held captive deep below Gaza, they continue to go out and advocate for the release of their loved ones. And to help people understand that these are real people, and we feel like we've gotten to know them. And that's because of the heroic actions that their loved ones have taken. 

There are people in social media who have become heroes for every day just going to battle against the lies and misinformation on so many of the social media outlets. In the United States, on college campuses right now, what we've seen from so many students, whether they're on our Campus Global Board, high school students from our LFT program, but wherever they are, the ability for students to stand up and to say, in the face of these protests that are often directed at the Jewish community, the language is horrific, and it is dangerous and unacceptable. 

And in the face of all of that. the number of students and young people who are standing up saying, I am a proud Jew who loves Israel. And I'm going to fight back in all of the ways I can to make sure that people know who we are, to make sure that they understand the truth of what's happening now. 

There are so many young people now who are doing heroic things, and will continue to do heroic things, I have no doubt, for the rest of their lives. And I think it's important to stop to acknowledge that.

I know these days, it's not popular to talk about heroes in politics. But if you pause for a moment and think about what Richie Torres has done, as a member of Congress, a progressive member of Congress, standing firmly in support of Israel and Israel's right to defend itself and speaking with a moral clarity that we wish others could follow. Ritchie's a hero. John Fetterman, staring down the protesters day after day, the way that he does, is a hero. 

At a time when there is so little bipartisanship, the fact that Speaker Johnson decided to move forward with the aid package for Israel and Ukraine and Taiwan with humanitarian aid and got that done, we should be celebrating his contributions. 

There are a lot of people that we really need to stop and be grateful for. And obviously, they're not all Jews. But it's a moment when the Jewish community, as we're thinking about our own heroes, should pause to be grateful for those who have really been helpful to the community. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Now you've just mentioned a lot of the people who've had a high profile since October 7. Any ordinary or overlooked heroes that we might not think to recognize?

Ted Deutch: 

Being a parent of a Jewish child shouldn't be heroic. And yet, seeing parents find more ways for their kids to really understand who we are, as a community find more ways for them to be involved, by more ways for them to learn, especially after 10/7, really teaching more and more about who we are as Jews, to our kids, that's heroic. 

I don't think it should be heroic to be a rabbi, or a Hebrew school teacher, or someone who works at a day school or in the Jewish community. But in this post 10/7 world, that work in so many instances is heroic, because of all of the baggage that comes with, with the protesters, with the challenges to the community, with the things that we see on social media, to get up every single day, and to be there as leaders in the Jewish community in synagogues, in schools, in the organizational world. As we prepare to get ready for camp season. All of these Jewish professionals are doing heroic work, and the community is so much better and stronger for it and for them.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

How did October 7th change you and your approach to either public service or service to the Jewish people?

Ted Deutch: 

First, there's an urgency with which I try to meet every single day, since 10/7, I think it's something that we all feel. I think a lot about the way that we felt on 10/7, that morning when we were learning about what happened and the fragility of Israel. And the notion that the Jewish community and Israel are so inextricably linked became more powerful than ever, and that both felt at risk that day and the days after.

It's just required a constant and urgent focus on trying to make sure that people understand what's actually happening, putting out meaningful and factual information and pushing back against false narratives, something that we've tried so hard to do, literally since 10/7. Helping people understand that the protests didn't start when IDF soldiers marched into Gaza to defend Israel and the Jewish people. They started after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 people on October 7. These were protests in support of this vile terrorism. 

And helping people understand that when Iran launched close to 350 missiles and drones, it was part of an ongoing effort through Iran, with Iran to the head, but that includes Hamas and Hezbollah, and the militia in Iraq and the militia in Syria, and the Houthis, and others throughout the region, all to target Israel, again, urgently making that clear every single day. 

So there's an urgency, there is a passion to make sure that the commitment in the community, the way that people have stood up and said, You know what, there are a lot of things that are important, but man our community needs, it needs us to focus on ourselves. That ultimately, the only people that we know that we can count on are the Jewish people. 

And yes, we're going to continue to work with our friends and allies and partners. That's important. But working hard to retain the sense of unity within the Jewish community is also something that was never really a priority. But now that we've seen what that unity looks like, and what it means when we all stand together, in the face of this Hamas evil in the face of these protesters celebrating terrorism, and calling for the destruction of Israel, that's a unity that we have to desperately try to hold on to, and to bring people together around, not just while this war is going on, but on into the future.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Ted, thank you so much for joining us.

Ted Deutch: 

I hope people will use this as an opportunity to share their own stories, their family stories, the stories of the people that they know deserve some attention for what they've done to strengthen America. 

And I hope that they'll go out and they'll tell the story and they'll get others to listen. Our contributions to America have been so rich and varied and instrumental to the kind of country that we have and the kind of country that we know we need to continue to be. These are stories that everyone needs to hear. So I very much appreciate the opportunity.