From the President

PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE – February 2024

As American Jews, we are proud of the many contributions of Jews to our country’s history and culture, be it in the arts, sciences, sports, law, government, or social services.

We can add to our collection of Jewish American heros one Samuel R. Light (1896-1983).  Sam was a coal mine operator in Pennsylvania.  He served his country in the first World War.  Active in civic activities, he was director of the Central Pennsylvania Coal Producers Association. He was director emeritus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A breeder of English setters, he gave one of the dogs to President Eisenhower. Light was at one time president of the Field Trial Dog Association and in 1976 was elected to the Field Trial Dog Hall of Fame.

But Sam made another, perhaps greater, contribution the American society.  In 1952 Sam became president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.  Sam decided he would give the day some added flair by wearing a top hat and tails when he plucked Punxsutawney Phil, the town’s famed groundhog, from a tree stump shortly before 7:30 a.m. to determine if Phil could see his shadow. If he could not, it meant an early spring. If he could, it meant six more weeks of winter.

As reported in the Jewish Daily Forward on January 28, 2021:

“In those days, celebrities and other important people would arrive in New York aboard ocean liners, and there to greet the ships was Grover Whalen [chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests],” recalled Light’s widow, Elaine. “He wore a tall hat and tails. Sam adopted that costume to greet the groundhog because he said he, too, was a very important person.”

Sam also composed the now-traditional announcement the commences the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, “Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye! On this Groundhog Day, February 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, King of the Groundhogs, Prognosticator of Prognosticators has responded to the tapping welcome of Groundhog Club President ….”

Groundhog Day began in 1886.  The event was later carried on radio and then on local Pittsburgh television stations.  In 1960 Sam’s wife Elaine brought Punxsutawney Phil to appear on the “Today Show” with Dave Garroway and Phil’s fame only grew from there.

Sam served as president of the town’s Groundhog Club until 1976. He died in 1983 and his trademark top hat is now in the town’s historical museum.

The Jewish community in Punxsutawney dates back to the 1830s.  Its original synagogue was built in 1900, and by 1907 there were an estimated 200 Jews in town.  Today, only a few remain.  The synagogue closed in the 1980s.

Thanks to Sam Light, Groundhog Day is known and “observed” across the United States.  While there are other groundhogs in other towns that are called upon to predict the early or late arrival of spring, for us, as American Jews, on the morning of February 2, our eyes turn toward Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Happy Groundhog Day!

— IRA L. GOLDSTEIN, President