Thanksgiving’s Jewish Roots and Wings: A Message from Federation CEO Gil Preuss

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As Thanksgiving draws near, you may be planning for the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie …. but have you considered preparing four questions for table talk?  The idea has been on my mind for the past few weeks, as I’ve considered celebrating the quintessential American holiday and its connection to Jewish tradition and history.

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Most of us know something about the Pilgrims fleeing persecution and coming to the new world in search of freedom. We are also not so naïve to simply gloss over the differing narratives of Native Americans and New England pilgrims. Educational World consultant Chuck Larson reminds us, “The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our childhood about the ‘First Thanksgiving’ is a mixture of both history and myth. But the theme of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond what we and our fore bearers have made of it. Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of Plymouth Plantation.” Indeed, Larson continues, there have been “thanksgivings” as long as there have been human beings.

The Torah established three holidays that address themes of the Israelites fleeing persecution and moving towards freedom.  Passover covers the exodus from slavery, Shavuot, the establishment of a nation through social and religious norms and Sukkot, the ultimate joy of living in a land and bringing in a harvest that sees you through the winter. The pilgrims were conversant with scripture and recognized in the fall festival of Sukkot a holiday of joy and thanksgiving for rain and harvest.

Even beyond the historical roots of giving thanks, and perhaps a more relevant message to our society today, are the circumstances around which President Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation. It was October 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War. Lincoln knew the great rift in our society but wanted to remind citizens that there were still blessings for which both sides could express gratitude and potentially see each other in a new light. The President concluded his proclamation by praying that God, “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows and orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife… and that God heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon… to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The chance to sit down and give thanks with and for those around us, to remember those who have shaped our past and to think of our potential and opportunity is, in and of itself, a moment where we can come together and build our collective future.

This year, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m looking forward to using the familiar Passover template of a seder ritual to bring additional meaning to our celebration.  In that spirit, here are four questions* you can also use as discussion starters around your table:

  1. Over the past year, name three things for which you are most thankful. In what ways could you “pay it forward” in your community?
  2. Thanksgiving is a time of appreciation. Describe a person in your life that you most appreciate. Why is this person so special? How may you continue their legacy of values?
  3. What is the most important aspect of Thanksgiving you would like to pass down to children and grandchildren?
  4. Who do you know right now who may be missing out on experiencing Thanksgiving? What could you do to bring them into your community of appreciation?

May Thanksgiving bring us ALL a sense of gratitude, happiness and shalom bayit, a wholeness in our homes and community.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving,

Gil

*If you’re interested in furthering your discussions of these questions, Federation can help. Visit Jconnect.org to explore the many ways you and your family can connect with our community, including ways to Do Good, free Jewish children’s books and events from PJ Library®, resources for those new to Greater Washington and much more.

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