MembersJew, Jewish or Hebrew? What’s in a Name?

The shift has been compared to trends in other minority movements, but none of them have bothered to be a “light to the nations”

By David Lazarus | | Topics: America
Is it Jewish or Hebraic? Jew or Israelite?
Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

It is a curious fact that the term “Jew” is generally considered derogatory, while “Jewish” not so much.

But that wasn’t always the case. Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States after the Civil War thought “Jewish” carried too much of a burden. They preferred the term “Hebrew,” or even “Israelite.”

The initial organization of American Jewish synagogues was named the Union of American Hebrew Congregations founded in Cincinnati, Ohio (1873). And the first American Jewish rabbinical seminary was called Hebrew Union College (1875). Earlier, a Jewish version of the YMCA was established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1854 and named the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA).

“The perception was that if the community did away with the word ‘Jew’ altogether, the prejudice would go away,” says historian Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Schocken, 2012).

As the American Jewish community grew and established itself, a decision was made that “Jewish” was more appropriate than “Hebrew.” The Jewish Theological Seminary was launched in 1886...

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