Issues & Ideas

Celebrating diversity at the Thanksgiving table

Brian Siegal, American Jewish Committee’s regional director (second from left), and Miami leaders at a recent AJC Thanksgiving breakfast.
Brian Siegal, American Jewish Committee’s regional director (second from left), and Miami leaders at a recent AJC Thanksgiving breakfast. Photo courtesy AJC.

Creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts is the essence of the American project. This aspiration is reflected in our nation’s motto — E Pluribus Unum. The vision of the United States as a country where people of all backgrounds have the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” is more precious than ever. It is the main reason so many have strived to come to this land and still do today.

Miami’s population has grown more diverse over the past few decades. The variety of cultures, languages and talents is evident in Miami’s school system, America’s fourth-largest, with more than 340,000 students from more than 100 countries. Immigrants have enriched this city in many ways.

Yet, as in other American cities, challenges remain for ensuring that all who live here are fully welcomed and considered integral to our society. To that end, government, civil society and business leaders are striving to make Miami a more unified community by building greater access to economic opportunity and by encouraging engagement with each other in school, work and socially.  If we can do this, we will better understand our differences, appreciate our common bonds and realize our potential. 

Thanksgiving is the perfect occasion to consider how our individual backgrounds enrich America and the country’s democratic values unite us. We do that by sitting with family and friends for a large, delicious meal and expressing thanks for being in America. And, to help us reflect on the meaning of this special holiday, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) created America’s Table: A Thanksgiving Reader. 

Intended to be read aloud prior to the festive meal, America’s Table®, in a few minutes, tells a story through profiles of Americans whose lives, contributions to society and civic involvement inspire us.

The introduction to America’s Table states: “We are each on a journey. Our families came from many different places, but share a common land, America. We are each part of America’s journey.  It was a difficult journey for many and an unjust passage for some. But America has become the sum of our unique contributions. We are each responsible for keeping American on course.”

“Journey stories” of 15 Miamians were presented in recent years at AJC’s “Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast.” Several are featured in the America’s Table booklet. Some came to America fleeing religious or political persecution. Others came in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Consider the following examples:

▪ Madhu Mehta, an Indian-American entrepreneur built her own business in India, Germany and the US and today leads the India-U.S. Chamber of Commerce Inc. in South Florida. She posited that hard work, determination and tenacity can make the pursuit and achievement of goals a reality in America. And she expresses appreciation for living in a country that allows her to maintain her bonds with her country of origin while being fully engaged in American life.

▪ Saif Ishoof, a Muslim-American is the Director of City Year Miami. Born in Guyana, Saif is grateful to his parents for instilling in him values from his tradition. Their journey to the U.S. taught him values such as hard work, humility and commitment to family. Civic engagement and giving back to his community are ways of showing his thanks for the opportunities he has enjoyed.

▪ Octavio Verdeja came to Miami from Cuba. He worked his way through a university education and became a founding partner of a public accounting firm and has served in numerous voluntary leadership roles, including as president of the United Way of Miami-Dade County and founding treasurer of the Children’s Trust. Whether serving on the boards of community groups or coaching basketball as he mentored foster children and teens, he has felt the need to speak out and act on behalf of others. He does not take freedom for granted and knows what it is like to have to work hard and how important it is to give back to his community.

In all cases, the individuals featured at the Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast and in the booklet and videos at www.americastable.org remind us how our varied backgrounds make American society vibrant.  Immigrants, the descendants of immigrants, and those who came to America under the cruelest of circumstances helped to create a nation of unparalleled strength.

Each of us must now do our part to appreciate our differences and build community broadly. Only then will we be able to keep Miami and America strong.

Get free copies of America’s Table for reading at the Thanksgiving meal at www.americastable.org.

Happy Thanksgiving.  

Brian Siegal is director of the AJC’s Miami and Broward Regional Office. He can be reached at miami@ajc.org.

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