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Jewish American Heritage Month | Congregation shares historic roots planted in Stockton

Temple Israel in Stockton is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the Western region of the U.S. and it's deeply rooted in the city's history.

STOCKTON, Calif. — There are significant cultural observances in May and one seldom highlighted is Jewish American Heritage Month, a federally recognized commemoration of the cultural and ethnic roots of Judaism in U.S. history.

The national month was designated in as an act of Congress on the heels of a year-long celebration of Jewish heritage in 2006.

Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff of Temple Israel in Stockton says the historic foundations of Jewish heritage took root in California during the Gold Rush era, long before it was nationally recognized in the month of May.

"They came to Stockton because Stockton played an important role in the Gold Rush, that the miners would come by river boat," said Gwasdoff. "By large, many of those merchants were Jews who came here for that reason."

Gwasdoff is the longest serving rabbi of 31 years of a Jewish temple in Stockton, which happens to be one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the Western region of the U.S. dating back to 1851, according to the Jewish Museum of the American West.

"They found congregations and communal organizations to support and help one another in Jewish cemeteries," said Gwasdoff. "Our Jewish cemetery is a state historic landmark and is the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Rockies in continuous use."

Temple Israel has been an epicenter for Jewish life in Stockton since the congregation's founding.

"We've had Jewish mayors and members of the city council," said Gwasdoff. "Jews had been instrumental in starting a lot of the important nonprofits here."

He describes Judaism as more than just a faith, but also an ethnicity and a culture with a long history.

Judaism is one of the oldest recorded monotheistic religions in the world with history dating back nearly 4,000 years.

"It's a great source of pride in sports and academia, in the arts," said Gwasdoff. "Everywhere you look, you see prominent Jews playing an important role." 

Unfortunately, being Jewish in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world also comes with a long history of hatred and discrimination.

"One of the sad realities of life not only in America, but around the world for Jews is that antisemitism," said Gwasdoff. "Probably one of the planet's oldest and most enduring hatreds is on the rise today."

A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League revealed antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased 36% in 2022 from the year prior — the largest increase in recorded history since 1979.

The audit included a 29% increase in antisemitic harassment, 51% increase of vandalism, and 26% increase in assaults.

"At one time, there was no fence and no gate here and people could freely come and go," said Gwasdoff. "But in this time of uncertainty, it's important for us to have upgraded security and so now sadly, we have a fence."

In total, the report found antisemitic incidents nationwide have jumped over 500% in the last decade partially due to anti-Zionist propaganda, an increase in white supremacy propaganda, and centuries long stereotypes contributing to hatred and violence against people of Jewish decent.

"But I must say it doesn't dim our spirits, and it doesn't prevent us from gathering and celebrating our faith and reminding ourselves every day how lucky we are to be Jews, to be a part of this people and a part of this heritage," said Gwasdoff.

Watch more from ABC10: The emergence of Filipino martial arts in Stockton

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