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About Sacred Stories

Both the Jewish People and the United States of America are rooted in a quest for greater freedom and human dignity. Inspired by this parallelism, the National Museum of American Jewish History is collaborating with Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and its Rabbis without Borders program to launch a new initiative, Sacred Stories: A Living Commentary on the Hebrew Bible and American Jewish History.

Sacred Stories weaves together Judaism’s foundational sacred text, the Torah, with one of the most successful expression of freedom in human history, the story of Jewish life in America. Sacred Stories explores our shared values by linking these two vital and compelling stories through contemporary commentary and 21st century media.

The Torah is a central feature of Jewish tradition. Used to refer generally to Jewish wisdom, it also refers specifically to the 5 Books of Moses which makes up the Hebrew Bible. A portion of the Torah text, a Parsha, is read on Shabbat (Sabbath). The whole Torah is read sequentially over the course of the year. Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest and begins on Friday evenings and ends Saturday night. Many Jews observe Shabbat to emulate God’s resting on the seventh day of Creation. The fourth commandment is to keep Shabbat holy which Jews do with festive meals, resting, and learning.

Sacred Stories ran from March 2013 – March 2014. You can read a press release about its initiation here.

A Jewish Sexual Ethic  judaism and the pill
 MARCH 28, 2014 TAZRIA
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By Rabbi Leana Moritt and Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

It’s no accident that strong Jewish voices were at the vanguard of the women’s movement. These women (and men) drew on Jewish tradition as they sought modern sexual liberation. Biblical and Jewish ethics embrace sexuality as healthy when appropriately channeled. Unlike some traditions that see celibacy as ideal, coupledom is the natural Jewish state. Roles and responsibilities for both men and women are specifically defined, while honoring both genders in an open and equal manner.

One example is this week’s Torah portion Tazria. Therein is a discussion of two spiritual states: tahor—pure and tamei—impure. These states are part of a natural cycle and are achieved through biblically appropriate physical contact, often associated with blood, other bodily fluids, and ritual cleansings in a mikveh (ritual bath). They are frequently connected with sexuality and childbirth—this week’s portion discusses impurity after childbirth. And while according to the Bible, women are more prone towards impurity; these states apply biblically to both men and women alike. Women and men are sexual beings. Women and men have possibilities and limitations.

In 1969, advances in contraception were changing American mores about sexuality, particularly for women. For Jews, innovations such as the pill, were not necessarily bad. Modern rabbis, such as David Feldman, author of “Judaism and the Pill” were able to re-contextualize this new science within the biblical text. Feldman and others followed generations of open rabbinic conversations about sexuality, which saw women in a positive light as sexual beings. The pill, Feldman concluded, was permissible from a Jewish point of view.

Being able to control fertility opened new possibilities for involvement in the workforce. Jewish women had always worked. Religious tradition saw it as a value; culturally women’s work was acceptable. Throughout Europe, Jewish women were taught to read and write. Jewish women ran or co-ran family businesses.

By the 1970s, the majority of American Jews had moved beyond the immigrant experience and integrated American values with their own Jewish values. The legacy of women’s work, education, and positive sexuality within the Jewish community meant that Jewish women were poised to be at the forefront of American conversations about women’s roles and possibilities. Jewish women like Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone were at the forefront of a movement to embrace equality for women with men and demand change. Behind them, in synagogues, on college campuses, in consciousness-raising mother’s groups, were countless Jewish women who were not ashamed to name the oppression of women and expect public discussion of the limitations and possibilities for women.

Rabbi Leana Moritt has served as the rabbi of the Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation since 2007 and is the founder of Thresholds: For the Jewishly Curious, providing education and support to interfaith families and those entering Jewish life. She created Thresholds after nearly ten years as director of Jewish outreach and Jewish life educator at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Rabbi Moritt holds dual rabbinic ordination from Academy for Jewish Religion in NY and Aleph: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Handbill, “Judaism and the Pill”
David Feldman, 1969
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Ethel C. Levenson
Located in the Women’s Movement case behind the large film screens in the Freedom Now gallery on the second floor.

The Freedom to Create a Sacred Space
January 31, 2014 TERUMAH
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Rabbi Rachel Ain

The notion of having a sacred space is a theme found in many religious traditions in the United States, and this is a theme of this week’s torah reading, Terumah, where instructions to build a sanctuary and collect donations for the construction of this space are given. In 1790 George Washington sent a letter to the Jewish community in Newport Rhode Island, ensuring religious freedom. Washington, familiar with the bible and paraphrasing Micah, writes, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitant; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree.” The separation of church and state in the US affords communities the freedom to create their own houses of worship according to their need and vision and with that comes the task of imagining and funding those sacred spaces. As you walk through the museum you will see examples of many sacred spaces. For example, in 1925, the Brooklyn Jewish Center was constructed. This building was more than just about cultivating a religious life but an attachment to the Jewish community. The idea that “one might be a Jews and enjoy life at the same time” was very prevalent. The model shows there are a variety of ways that people enjoyed their time there is a gym for community sports, a pool for swimming, a social hall and of course a sanctuary. There were many ways for people connect and use the space.

No matter the ways Jews might use it, a synagogue was still a community space and communities need funds. In our Torah portion there is an expectation that everyone donate to build the sanctuary. The portion begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from everyone person whose heart so moves him.” [Exodus 25:1-2]This sentiment is echoed in the sign, ”Don’t forget for yahrzeit make your donation for the upkeep of our Temple payable at this office.” While preforming the religious obligation to remember the dead, members of the community were encouraged to remember their obligation to the living.

Throughout the United States, Jews have built many kinds of synagogues, from simple storefront sanctuaries they have evolved to much grander building with high ceilings and beautiful architecture. Jews feel free to support their religious institutions. In every synagogue, no matter how modest or how opulent, George Washington’s hope for the Jews, that they find America a place where they could live freely as Jews, has come true.

Given the freedom afforded to religion in America, Jewish sacred space evolves but always with goal of creating a vibrant, integrated Jewish community in America.

Model, Brooklyn Jewish Center
National Museum of American Jewish History
Sign, “Don’t forget for Yarzeit/ Make your Donation/ For the upkeep of our Temple”
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2006.1.22
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana
Both artifacts are located in the religion section of the Competing Visions gallery on the third floor

The New Jew
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By Rabbi Jason Herman

The Jewish Defense League was founded in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane to protect Jews against local acts of antisemitism. Its symbol, seen on its pamphlets and buttons -a fist in a Star of David- speaks to a vision of Jews as strong and powerful. Reporting on the group, the New York Times headline, “Is This Anyway for Nice Jewish Boys to Behave?” uncovered American assumptions and expectations about how a Jew and an American Jew particularly should look and act.

Were Jews in America supposed to rely on this great country to protect them and their rights?

Could Jews take matters of defense into their own hands? Could Jews look like tough guys?

Generations of Americans, including American Jews, had a particular idea of how to answer these questions about what it meant to be Jewish. In the 1960s and 70s, as Jews (and others) explored new modes of dress and behavior, these new approaches would often be shocking.

The questions while taking on a uniquely American element are not new to Jews. These questions are raised in the Bible itself. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, places a long list of civil laws before the Israelites just following the Revelation at Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments were presented to the Israelites (read in last week’s portion). The first intent was to transform a nation of former slaves into a nation of laws and self-governance. Could former slaves really do that?

Furthermore, within this whole body of new laws, was there ever room for one to take the law into one’s own hands? The Torah itself presents such a case regarding a thief caught in a tunnel. “If the thief is seized while tunneling and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case.” (Exodus 22:1)

This verse and entire portion is not surprisingly the source of much Rabbinic debate. Is this a Jewish version of a “stand your ground” law? Or perhaps it is only because the thief poses a real threat to one’s life? The rabbis similarly debate what happens, when in contradiction to other laws, one actively seizes one’s own disputed property.

For much of Jewish history when Jews were not allowed to bear arms or defend themselves, these debates and questions might have seemed primarily academic. But, in the 1960s and 70s ethnicity and identity emerged as a source of power for many groups in America. Allowing them to question ‘received wisdom’ and ‘accepted norms.’ Black Power, broadly understood, gave a new voice to African Americans and transformed the Civil Rights Movement in America. Women found a voice in a new wave of feminism that helped them envision a new type of womanhood. In the United States, where Jews had the same rights as other citizens, these movements opened new possibilities and allowed Jews to return to the biblical discussions. A new kind of Jew could emerge. Some Jews took on the responsibility for their own defense, challenging assumptions about how Jews behave.

Handbill, Jewish Defense League & Youth Activist Gathering, Philadelphia
National Museum of American Jewish History, 1992.130.11

Located in the Civil Rights case to the left of the large film in the Freedom Now gallery on the second floor

Showing Them the Way
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By Rabbi Steve Bayar

The story of Joseph and his brothers is the stuff that soap operas are made of. Joseph was his father's favorite son. His ten brothers were jealous of his position and sold him to wandering nomads. Joseph ended up a slave in Egypt. Eventually he ends up as the vizier of all Egypt; second only to Pharaoh himself. A famine brings his family to Egypt, where they are reunited.

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash we find that Joseph finds it within himself to help his brothers in spite of their past mistreatment of him. He brings them into Egypt, finds homes for them, provides and protects them.

Egypt at that time was the most civilized, sophisticated, and powerful land in the known world. However, the Egyptians were prejudiced towards alien peoples. In particular, they found shepherds abhorrent. Joseph's family happened to all be shepherds. Egyptians refused to sit at a table and eat with non-Egyptians. Even Joseph is not allowed at an Egyptian table. How were these newcomers going to be received? With Joseph’s guidance, his family soon adjusted to life in Eygpt. The Pharoah, in appreciation to Joseph’s service, welcomes them, “As regards your father and your brothers who come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land.” [Genesis 47:5-6]

The United States in the late 1800's was just beginning to realize it was a world power. While there had been a steady stream of immigrants for over one hundred years, the last decades of the 19th century saw immigration rates increase rapidly. The established Jewish community was faced with a dilemma. Thousands of Eastern European Jews were entering the country. The Jews who were already living in America often viewed new immigrants as backward, uneducated, and in need of improvement. Would the earlier immigrants, mostly from Central and Western Europe, be able to look beyond the differences of language, socio-economic status, and religious observance levels with these coreligionists and welcome them in the new land? Could they help them find homes, jobs, and a welcoming community here in America?

 As in the biblical story, there was drama and difficulties. Many established Jews were embarrassed by the backward ways of their coreligionists. Some tried to distance themselves, while others tried to guide the immigrants towards American values and traditions. In New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities, Jewish women were involved in creating Settlement Houses which served as community centers teaching immigrants English, American cooking, and housekeeping skills. Good Citizenship found on display here, is an excellent example of a whole body of literature aimed at guiding immigrants in every aspect of American life. One of the cowriters, Julia Richman, worked in education, secular and Jewish, for 40 years. Richman was the first woman to become district superintendent of New York City’s public schools where she oversaw the education of many immigrant children. While it would take several generations for the differences between the established community and the newcomers to disappear, the wisdom and experience of those who had settled first played a crucial role in setting out the norms for new arrivals. The counsel found in classes, pamphlets and books, played a key role in helping newcomers adjust to the United States.

Good Citizenship
Julia Richman and Isabel Richman Wallach
New York: American Book Company, 1908
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2008.22.1
Dedicated in honor of Lyn and George Ross by Ronnie Heyman

Located in the settlement case in the Making America Home galleries on the third floor.

Celebrate Abundance and Possibility macys 1
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By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Call it a simple coincidence, call it Thanksgivukah, call it a once in a lifetime opportunity to integrate the quintessentially American and the quintessentially Jewish, but whatever you call it, celebrate the abundance and possibility in your life this year, as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlap.

From recalling a group of brave, hopeful, religious outsiders, the Pilgrims, who boarded leaky ships bound for a place they did not know, to a group of equally brave and hopeful religious outsiders, the Maccabees, who took on a fight they had little chance of winning, to immigrant Jews who celebrated holidays from Purim to Thanksgiving, by sharing with others, these are stories of recognizing possibility and celebrating abundance.

macys2In all of these cases, as in all of our lives, the story could have gone in a different direction. The pilgrims could have stayed home, or could have resisted celebrating when so much around them was still so rough and so terribly uncertain. The Maccabees could have also stayed home, or could have decided that there wasn’t enough oil to keep the Temple Menorah burning, so why bother lighting it at all. And immigrants, who were still hard at work scratching out a living, could have resisted the response to share, especially with those who were not members of their particular community. But they didn’t.
macys 3
They did make the journey, they did fight and light, and they did give. In all three cases, they trusted in the possibility of the moment, and in the abundance they possessed. We can do the same in our own lives.

Whether at the table around a turkey, around a menorah set with candles, or wherever else you find yourself this Thanksgiving or Hanukkah, trust and celebrate that there is more in your life than you may know, and more possibility for you in the future than you may imagine. Do that and you join the ranks of some of the greatest heroes of both American and Jewish history. And if not this year, when?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Artifacts from the archives of Macy’s Inc, early twentieth century
National Museum of American Jewish History

Did You Know? – The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade started in 1924 under the leadership of the Straus family. The many immigrant employees marched in the parade as a way to give back and say thanks to their community.

The Quintessential American Jewish Holiday saks letter
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By Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD
Hanukkah is an ancient Jewish holiday that has truly come into its own in the context of America. The historic victory of the ancient Maccabees and the miracle of oil postdate the biblical era, so while the events were marked through the generations with lighting of lights and eating special foods, it remained a lesser holiday.

Freedom of religious expression in the United States has played a key role in helping Hanukkah flourish in this country. The timing of the holiday is usually close to that of Christmas. In America, Jews felt at home enough to share in a communal season of celebration along side their Christian neighbors. And as businesses increasingly engaged with the Christmas spirit, Hanukkah came along for the ride. In 1955, Barton’s Candy Company got in on the holiday magic, issuing a brightly colored menorah promoting tradition and sweets with a beautiful modern take on the traditional candelabra. It was a fun take on a classic ritual object at a time when Jews where looking for ways to make their Judaism part of mainstream culture. While undoubtedly some mourn the consumerfication of Hanukkah, offerings such as these allow Jews to participate in the spirit of the season as well as keep the holiday vibrant, current, and American.

statue of libertySo comfortable were Jews with seeing Hanukkah as a vehicle for participation in the mainstream of American life, that Jews began to expect if not equal time for their holiday, tokens of respect. In 1962, when segregation still dominated in large portions of the country, a young Debbie Katchko of Connecticut wrote to her Saks Fifth Avenue to request that a Hanukkah display be placed along side the beautiful Christmas tree. Growing up in an atmosphere of religious equality, she loved the display but thought Jewish symbols ought to be included as well.

Elements of the Hanukkah story also resonated strongly with the American narrative. Take for example, Manfred Anson’s beautiful Lady Liberty Hanukkah menorah. The lighting of the menorah by the ancient Maccabees in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is hailed in Jewish tradition as the triumph of religious freedom in the face of oppression. A Holocaust survivor from Germany, Anson designed this menorah in honor of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Just as the lights of the menorah signal renewal, Lady Liberty, with her torch, represents new opportunities and possibilities for those who come to her shores. The Hanukkah story is in many ways, the American story.
Hanukkah has come to epitomize Jewish life in America. Not only does the classical story of the holiday and its rituals resonate with values central to American life, but its observance as a holiday provides a bridge between the particularism of Jewish life and the general American culture. As you wander through the Museum, consider the many Hanukkah menorahs on display. Each is part of a timeless story, as well as a marker of a particular moment in the American Jewish experience. It is no wonder that Hanukkah is a major holiday for today’s American Jews.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Manfred Anson (1922-2012), Hanukkah menorah, Statue of Liberty Centennial, cast 2011
National Museum of American Jewish History
Donated by Dr. Aaron Feingold in honor of Zara Feingold and Rachel Feingold

Letter, Michael Weinberg to Deborah Katchko, 1962
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray

Live Your Own Story georgehelfand
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By Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard PhD

The beginning of a story does not often reveal its end. There are so many contingencies, so many chances to beat the odds or be defeated by them. For Jewish boys living in 20th century Russia, the future could look bleak. You might scrape by or end up in the Czarist or later the Communist army. So you dream of going to America. But there were so many unknowns there as well. Will you succeed in America or end up incapacitated by a work accident?

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, Joseph did not leave a difficult Canaan to try and make it big in Egypt. Quite the opposite, he was a favored son who became a slave. But he was also a slave who became second to Pharaoh. The son of Jacob’s old age and of his beloved wife Rachel, Joseph appeared a narcissistic dreamer whose sense of superiority and entitlement only incited his brothers’ rage. Rabbinic literature sometimes saw Joseph as an annoying adolescent with exaggerated concerns about his physical beauty expecting to attain great power over others, including his own father and brothers.

Here too, there were dangers along the way. Your brothers scheme to kill you, you are sold into slavery, your master’s wife gets you thrown into prison, and despite your success as a dream interpreter to a powerful court figure you won’t be immediately released. And, while the reader knows how Joseph’s story will turn out, Joseph does not.

How about the Russian Jewish boy, George Helfand? Would his Jewish identity be changed by attending a modern Hebrew school or a Russian school? Would he be “lucky” and notice the small article that lead to his exemption from Czarist military service? Would he escape Communist conscription as well? His was one story of perhaps, the most successful Jewish movement in the late nineteenth early twentieth century—immigration to America. Like Joseph, he did not know how the difficult and unsure steps along the way would turn out. For him, as for all of us, the only way to see how the story will turn out was to live it to the end.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the Director of Organizational Development at Clal, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and a practicing clinical and organizational psycologist in New York, holding PhDs in Psychology and Philosophy. Rabbi Blanchard has taught at Washington, Northwestern, and Loyola Universities, as well as the Drisha Institute for Women, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, and Fordham Law School. A guest of both Oprah Winfrey and Pope Benedict XVI, Rabbi Blanchard continues to be an active voice for Clal’s mission of religious pluralism and diversity, as a participant of the Center for Christian–Jewish Understanding.

Exemption certificate of George Helfand, Russia, 1916
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Trudy and Philon Helfand in loving memory of our parents Ruth and
George E. Helfand

George Helfand, knowing his exemptions from army service were only temporary, left Russia with his wife, Ruth, first to Poland and later to America. Upon arrival, Helfand settled in Portland, Maine and eventually moved to Philadelphia.

Blessings for America Richmond prayer b
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By Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum

When challenges arise, it is easy to pray for a solution. Journeying towards a meeting with his estranged brother, the biblical Jacob had a nighttime encounter with an angel. Upon besting the angel during a nighttime scuffle, proclaims: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Jacob asks for blessing from the Angel of the Eternal, but he did not get into specific requests or needs. A general blessing was all that was needed.

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving. In celebration of this day, faith communities around the new nation held services of Thanksgiving. Jacob Cohen, of the Jewish Community of Richmond, Virginia, composed a “Prayer for the Nation” in Hebrew. In this prayer, Cohen thanks God for the new nation and asks God to bless the nation, the president, and the vice president, as well as the senators and representatives elected to government.

Almost 130 years later, in the shadow of The Great War, Irving Berlin wrote the words to “God Bless America” as a prayer asking for blessing for America in the form of a song. It was not until 1938, however, and the rise of Hitler in Europe, that Berlin introduced the song to America. The song’s request for blessing is simple and direct, like the biblical Jacob: “God, bless America.”

God Bless AmericaThe sentiment behind these prayers for the United States is clear: Jews viewed America as their nation and their home. One line of Cohen’s prayer reads, “Grant success and blessing upon our country.” Berlin describes America as “my home sweet home.” Both these prayers evoke a sense of belonging. America is ours. There is no fear of dual loyalty. A nation which was founded in order to give to bigotry no sanction can truly be a home for all people, particularly Jews who had struggled to find freedom and prosperity in most nations of the world.

The biblical Jacob demanded a blessing for survival, facing a potentially powerful foe. In the midst of struggle, whether it be the founding of the nation or a fight against evil, the Jewish-American response has been to ask for blessings for America, a nation that has itself been a blessing for so many people with so many differences.

Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum is head rabbi and director of education at Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, in East Meadow, N.Y. Born in Israel, he moved to the Chicago area in 1981. He went on to attend Vanderbilt University and was a DeLeT Fellow at Brandeis University. Rabbi Bar-Nahum completed his master’s degree via distance learning at Siegal College in Cleveland, OH focusing on Jewish identity formation in middle school students. He was a Judaic studies teacher at the Davis Academy in Atlanta, GA, before earning his ordination and a masters of arts in Hebrew literature at HUC-JIR.

Cover: Prayer for the country, Richmond, 1789
National Museum of American Jewish History
A gift from ARA Services, Inc., Conservation funds provided by the Robert Saligman Charitable Fund

God Bless America by Irving Berlin, 1939
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of George Blumenthal

A Tribute To God Harpers Weekly
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By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves his parents’ home and travels to see his uncle, Laban. On the way, he has a dream in which God appears to him and tells him that one day the land he is laying on will be his and that he will be prosperous, with numerous descendants. Shaken, Jacob awakes from the dream and declares, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God.” [Gen 28:17] He sets up a pillar, pours oil on it and names the place, “Bethel” which means the house of God. If God remains with him, he promises to return to this place and make a tithe of a tenth of his possessions in gratitude to God. Thus the concept of a synagogue or a specific place to find God’s presence is born.

Settling in America, Jews established synagogues wherever they lived. Given the influx of Jews to New York, particularly to what would become the Lower East Side of New York it is no surprise that many synagogues were established there. One new synagogue, Temple Emanu El began in 1845 as a gathering of 33 German Jews. The community’s originally met in a meeting room and then moved into former churches. Growing quickly with many prominent families, the congregation spent $800,000, a large sum in 1868, to build what was then the largest synagogue structure in America. The Moorish Revival structure by Leopold Eidlitz can be seen in a page taken from Harper’s Weekly on the fourth floor.

Building such a large and impressive building was a long way from Jacobs’s pillar of rocks. However, it served to show that God’s message to Jacob had come true. The ornate building was a symbol to Jews that even here in America God was with them. Their population was growing and becoming quite prosperous. Building their own synagogue building was a symbol that Jews were becoming an accepted and powerful part of American society. Jews could build impressive worship structures to rival any church, and proudly proclaim their religious identities in this new country.

Temple Emanu El stood out not just for its building and impressive membership roster, but also as a leader in Reform worship. The Classical Reform synagogue prayed in German and later English rather than the traditional Hebrew, introduced instrumental music, mixed seating, and did away with the tradition of men wearing kippot (skullcaps) to pray. Continuing to grow, Temple Emanu El moved to its current residence on East 65th street and Fifth Avenue, building another magnificent structure, in 1929. Emanu El continues to be a leading congregation in the Reform Movement. If he could see it today, the biblical Jacob would be amazed at what God had wrought.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, and holds a masters degree and ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Temple Emanu-El, New York
Harper’s Weekly, November 14, 1868
National Museum of American Jewish History
Dedicated in memory of Sallie M. Gross by Lyn and George Ross

Departures baen muffin tin
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By Rabbi Darby Leigh and Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD

Sometimes a simple object can be quite magical. Take Eva Baen’s muffin tin. Six strong simple metal cups. Yet, put a little wet batter into these cups, pop them in the oven and in no time you have half a dozen little warm inviting cakes. Clean the tin and the potential for magic returns.

The human story is largely a story of departure and transition. Individuals, whole communities, tribes, villages, and nations are often in transition, leaving their homes in search of greater resources or greater personal safety. The Jewish story, in particular, is often about departure, exile, and journey. Jews are often referred to as a “wandering” people, an entirely accurate description, seen through the broad scope of Jewish stories and history. For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read of Isaac journeying from Gerar to Rehoboth to Beer-Sheva and of Jacob journeying to Paddan-aram and on and on.

Almost every significant period in Jewish history is defined by the Jewish people’s transition from one place to another, marked by departures and arrivals. Jews carried their possessions in sacks, satchels, suitcases, and trunks. These carrying cases have themselves become powerful symbols of the journey. As you journey through this museum, see how many carrying sacks, suitcases, or trunks you can find. Notice the saddle bags and peddlers’ wagons of the 1800s; the bags in the photo marked 1880–1924; the suitcases piled at the entrance to the exhibition on the 3rd floor; and the suitcases within the galleries, as well as the trunk from the MS St. Louis.

In their journeying in Toldot, what did Isaac and Jacob carry with them? What was important enough to pack; what did they leave behind; and how did they decide? The Torah doesn’t tell us.

In 1913, when 17 year old Eva Baen left her affluent family home in Russia for the uncertainty of the United States she put this muffin tin into her bag. Why? We can only guess. Baen made a good life in the United States. Working by day, she fulfilled her dream of getting an education in the evenings. She married and together with her husband ran a successful grocery store. She raised children, living to see grandchildren attend college. Her daughter Clara recalled her mother using “tenacity and optimism to get ahead.” It seems the muffin tin with its sturdy potential for magic and renewal was the perfect piece for Baen to pack.

A life-long “truth seeker,” Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh is a native New Yorker who loves mountains. Rabbi Leigh is a fire-juggling Generation Xer who toured as a leading actor with the Tony award-winning National Theater of the Deaf and has educated others on deafness through his work with organizations such as the New York City Fire Department, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Rabbi Leigh earned his bachelor of arts in religion, summa cum laude, from the University of Rochester—where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa—and a master of arts in religion from Columbia University before attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He currently serves as Associate Rabbi at Congregation Bnai Keshet.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Muffin tin of Eva Baen, Russia
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Clara K. Braslow

Honoring the Dead yahrzeit
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By Rabbi Helaine Ettinger

When people we love die, how do maintain our connection to them? In Jewish tradition one of the ways we sustain these ties is by marking the anniversary of the death through prayer and ritual. The anniversary is called a Yahrzeit from the German Jahr – year and Zeit – time. The term originated in the late 14th century and although it is Yiddish, a Judeo-German language used by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the term is often found in religious texts of Sephardi Jews who trace their ancestors to the Iberian Peninsula. Today on the Yahrzeit of immediate family members, many Jews light a special memorial candle that burns for 24 hours in their homes. Additionally they stand with other mourners and recite the special Mourner’s Kaddish prayer in their honor during daily worship. In private and in public, we remember the people we loved.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, it became common practice to create a printed Yahrzeit calendar on which were written the next 25 or even 50 Gregorian calendar dates that correspond to the annual Hebrew calendar date of death (the two calendars are not identical). These documents were often illustrated with scenes of Kever Rahel, the burial site of the matriarch Rachel or other symbols of mourning. Blank calendars were available for purchase and families could customize them not only with the future dates of the yahrzeit, but also with photos or other mementos. They were precious reminders of the annual observance in a person’s honor. The museum has one such calendar on view. This calendar is hanging on the wall of a large case in a gallery devoted to early 20th century tenement life. The calendar prominently hangs as it would have in the home of the family who owned it. This calendar has been customized to include the yahrzeits of the mother and father, Aaron and Pearl Zelicovitch. It includes their Hebrew names and date of death. These calendars are a form of folk art created to honor the dead.

In the ancient world, before the advent of printing presses and mass-produced calendars, the Jews of the Bible fostered the link between one generation and another through family burial caves. In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Abraham elaborately negotiates to buy the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite in order to establish a permanent family burial site when his wife Sarah dies. Abraham and many of his descendants are buried there. So important is the ritual of being “gathered to his people,” [Genesis 49:33] that their grandson, Jacob, and their great-grandson, Joseph, who both die in Egypt, insist that their bones be carried back to Canaan for burial in the family Cave of Machpelah.

In post-Biblical times, the continuous relocation of the Jewish people made it hard to maintain the custom of a single family burial site, or even to visit the graves of loved ones. Lighting memorial candles, reciting prayers, and creating beautiful Yahrzeit calendars enable a migrating people to maintain strong ties of love and remembrance.

Rabbi Helaine Ettinger is a Reform Rabbi,Co-President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and a fellow with Rabbis Without Borders.

Yahrzeit calendar, Pearl and Aaron Zelicovitch, 1934
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana

Recognizing Need jewish war sufferers
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By Rabbi James Q. Kahn

“Our Boys FREED Them Won’t You FEED Them,” asks this 1917 Jewish War Sufferers poster. For Jews of the World War I era, the question may have seemed redundant. They would help… as Jews have done since the days of Abraham, more than 4000 years ago.
The story begins in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. There in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yera which translates to “And he saw,” we discover Abraham, the world’s first Jew, sitting at the opening of his tent.

“[Abraham] was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves.’” [Genesis 18: 1-5]

Some Jews consider the Hebrew Bible the blueprint of the world and their guide to living in it. Here, Abraham’s story becomes a teaching on how one responds to the needs of others. Abraham ran to greet the strangers despite oppressive desert heat, advanced age, and physical pain. So too would American Jews rush to care for Jewish war sufferers.

The requests arrived quickly. In August 1914, less than a month after the start of WWI, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, cabled New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff requesting $50,000 be sent to aid Palestine’s Jews. The war had cut Palestine off from Europe, leaving communities isolated and at risk of starvation. Within two days of the cable, money was en route. It was only a beginning.

WWI endangered the lives of nearly 1.5 Eastern European Jews. Seemingly overnight, American Jewry erected a sophisticated network of relief organizations bringing unprecedented funds and goods to those in need.

The American Jewish Relief Committee, the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War, and the People’s Relief Committee joined forces to form the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers (commonly known as the Joint). In November 1918, WWI ended, but Abraham’s legacy lives on as the Joint and other Jewish relief organizations continue to serve Jewish communities in America and around the world.

These stories, spanning 4000 years… united by the same message: recognize need and respond! As Abraham opened his tent to the strangers, early 20th century American Jews opened their wallets and hearts to Jewish war sufferers. It is an ancient narrative brought to life in every generation. It will happen again! How will you respond?

Rabbi James Kahn is the Director of Jewish Engagement and Chaplaincy at Jewish Social Services Agency. He most recently served as Senior Jewish Educator at University of Maryland Hillel. In addition to his work with Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Kahn was one of ten innovative rabbinic-educators hired by Hillel’s Schusterman International Center and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation to rethink the field of informal Jewish education in a college setting. Rabbi Kahn was ordained at Boston’s Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he also earned a master’s in Jewish studies. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida with a bachelor’s in religious studies, specializing in comparative mysticism.

Poster, Jewish War Sufferers
Illustrated by Lou Mayer
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana

A Land of Promise img_0002
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By Rabbi Albert Gabbai

At the beginning of the Museum’s exhibition on the fourth floor, we face a Torah scroll from Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. It looks quite old. As a matter of fact, it is so old that it cannot be repaired. Every week, the members took it out, read and learned from it. Time and use took its toll, and eventually the accumulating wear made the Torah scroll Passul, or unfit to read from. But the power of the words remains.

In this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, there is a charge given by God to Abram our forefather (before God changes Abram’s name to Abraham while promising to make him a great nation a few chapters later in this same portion), to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” [Genesis 12:1-3]

I can imagine the first Jews who came to this land recalling these verses in the original Hebrew, “Lech Lecha … El Ha’arets Asher Er’echa,” as they arrived in a land that they did not know. They did not know what this promise had in store. Yet they knew that the Almighty was guiding them like he did with their ancestors Abraham and Sarah—God did not tell them which or what land it would be. As for these Jews coming to Colonial America, they were former Conversos—Jews who had publically converted to Catholicism from fear of death but had remained secretly faithful to their religion. Now coming to a new land they returned to their original religion, hoping they would not face the Catholic Inquisition or at least less or no official persecution.

They were ready for all eventualities. At that time they did not know that they would eventually be active members in the American Revolution, nor of their participation in the founding of these United States. They were motivated to go forward by the spirit of the Torah. This was the indomitable spirit that carried ancestors of the members of Congregation Mikveh Israel who lived as secret Jews in Spain or Portugal, it was the spirit that would carry future generations of immigrants. In this new land, those original newcomers did find a land that upheld its promise. They were able to found Congregation Mikveh Israel in the 1740s, gather publically, and read from the Torah.

So, go ahead and gaze at this ancient holy object. But keep in mind that it is much more than an artifact. It contains words that have inspired and continue to inspire and that provide the spirit for moving forward.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai is the leader of Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution.”

Torah scroll
Parchment and Ink
Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia

Signs of Hope mezuzah 200431
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By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

The story that gives this week’s Torah portion its name, Noah, is one that speaks to a positive vision of the future despite past difficulties. One of the best known narratives in the Bible, it tells of a divine flood that destroyed the whole world. Only Noah, his immediate family, and two of each species of animal were saved. Eventually, the waters receded. Despite his difficult experiences, Noah was not without hope. Immediately, he set up an alter and brought an offering of thanksgiving. He affirmed a covenant with God. Instead of dwelling on the past, he chose to believe that the future would be better.

In the late 1800s, the poverty and persecution experienced by Jews in Eastern Europe was so pervasive and grinding that many Jews felt compelled to leave. There was a mass migration to the United States. The emotions many immigrants felt upon seeing America on the horizon for the first time surely mirrored Noah’s emotions upon receiving an olive branch from the dove he released to find a sign of dry land. Arriving in the New World, each immigrant had to decide whether to look back with dread to the past or forward with hope.

Once arriving in America, some immigrants took to peddling and eventually establishing stores to sell their wares. Starting a business is a leap of faith—faith and hope in customers who have yet to come. It is to believe, that the money invested will be returned and will grow, that the future will be good and sustaining.

Within the streetscape on the third floor, there are many artifacts from Jewish businesses like hangers, pill boxes, postcards, bottles, and more. Particularly notable is the mezuzah that hung at the entrance to Klinghoffer’s carpet store in South Philly. Inside the casing is a scroll, which like Noah’s offering, affirms a relationship with God and looks to the future. The passages written on the scroll contains biblical instructions for marking doors of Jewish dwellings as well verses that speak of God’s oneness and of the responsibility to teach children Jewish tradition. Like starting a business, teaching our children shows a belief that there will be a future worthy of investment. Throughout South Philly, Jewish immigrants and their children opened businesses and placed mezuzot on doorposts, affirming—in contrast to their historical experience in Eastern Europe—a vision for a positive future in the United States.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Mezuzah, Harry Klinghoffer Fine Carpets, Philadelphia
National Museum of American Jewish History
In loving memory of Harry and Hendella Klinghoffer Bronstein, Joseph and Mary Blumstein Bronstein, Harry and Esther Uram Klinghoffer, from their children and grandchildren.

Separate Together: Just Married
Can we have both universality and distinctiveness?

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By Rabbi Heidi Hoover

The story of Adam and Eve is about and for all of humanity, not just Jews. After all, they are not the first Jews but the first humans. Responding to the universality of this part of the creation story, ancient Jewish Sages said, “For this reason man was created alone, for the sake of peace between mankind, so that one man could not say to his fellow: ‘My father was greater than yours!’ [because they share a common ancestor],” [Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a]. In other words, because all of humanity descends from the first human, Adam, no one can say his or her ancestry is better than anyone else’s. All humans are equal in value. Adam and Eve’s story is found in this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit, the first portion of the first book of the Torah.

Despite this universal element that seems to say we should all be united, there is also a strong theme of separation in B’reishit as God creates the world. God separates light from darkness, water from water (creating sky above and water below), dry land from water, and one human into two humans, male and female (a rabbinic interpretation says that the first human had two sides, a male side and a female side, and they were simply split to make man and woman).

In Jewish history and tradition there has always been tension between universalism—Jewish integration with the surrounding cultures—and particularism—Jews’ remaining separate from those around them. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the concern in the Jewish world about marriage between Jews and non-Jews. While intermarriage has happened throughout Jewish history, the increasing acceptance of Jews in American society in the latter half of the 20th century through today has lowered societal barriers to intermarriage. While 13 percent of Jews intermarried before 1970, that rate began to rise precipitously in the 1970s, so that today nearly half of all Jews marry a partner who is not Jewish.

An edition of the comic book Just Married from 1973, in the Museum’s exhibition, tackles the issue with “Too Many In-laws,” asking, “Should a Jewish boy and an Irish girl fall in love?” and concluding “love always finds a way!” A mainstream comic that did not focus primarily on Jews, Just Married reflects both the increasing visibility of Jews in America and the difficulties families experienced when members intermarried.

Since 1973, the level of acceptance of intermarriage has increased, though among many in Jewish leadership, it remains a great source of anxiety about the Jewish future. One challenge for the Jews of America today is how to balance our universalism and particularism, taking advantage of the wonderful opportunities and inclusion that American society and culture offer us, while also maintaining our distinct tradition and heritage. The tension between assimilation, integration, and separation is an old one, and so far love of Judaism has always found a way, and we are still here. As the Jewish community continues to evolve, may it always be so.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover, of Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, is a proud alumna of the Academy for Jewish Religion and Gratz College; she received smicha (ordination) and her Master’s degree in Jewish Studies in May of 2011. Her undergraduate degree is from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Just Married
Charlton Comics, May 1973
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana

Setting the Course Morais Lincoln
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By Rabbi Rachel Ain

In every generation there are people who are able to recognize that in their time, in their day, it is their leadership that will make a difference in the world. The way in which the community understands a person’s leadership will forever memorialize the impact of that individual. V’zot HaBracha is the final portion in the five books of the Torah. It is read not on a specific Shabbat but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, when Jews celebrate the renewal of the Torah reading cycle. In this portion, Moses takes his leave of the people of Israel and we can see the impact that he had. Moses was both a practical and visionary leader—he led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and envisioned their freedom. But as we read about his death, we learn that he never reached the Promised Land. Although Joshua is named his successor, the Torah states, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” [Deuteronomy 34:10]

As you walk through the Museum’s Civil War gallery, you will notice small case dedicated to President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln stands out for the ways in which he was a true Moses figure for Americans. Like Moses, Lincoln died before he saw his full goals recognized and yet, the power and effectiveness of his leadership was not diminished in the eyes of his supporters, even by his death. Like Jewish communities across the nation, Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel mourned the death of Lincoln which occurred during the holiday of Passover. Mikveh Israel’s leader Sabato Morais delivered an address to the congregation just a few days after Lincoln’s assassination. Before his address, Morais read aloud a Resolution passed by the Congregation’s Trustees which made the comparison to this week’s portion, stating that Lincoln, “like our own law giver Moses, brought a nation to the verge of the haven of peace and like him, wasn’t allowed to participate in its consumption.”

The power of this sentiment is that we understand that one doesn’t need to complete a task in order for its value to be realized. One the grand scale the “Moseses” and “Lincolns” of the world demonstrate that it takes a great leader to be able to do as much as they can and hope that the next generation will take it a step further. In our own lives, we know that we won’t be able to set out all that we hope to do and yet we can look at those who will come after us – our children, our students, our loved ones, our friends, those we mentor, and know that if we can demonstrate what we care about our values will live on forever.

Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue, in Midtown Manhattan. In addition to her work with Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders innaugural fellowship, she is the former Senior Director for National Young Leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and previously served as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, in Syracuse, NY. While working with Clal, Rabbi Ain was a commissioned Lieutenant (JG) for the US Navy Chaplains Corps. She is a member of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Board of Professional Advisors, sits on the Chancellor’s Rabbinic Cabinet of JTS, is on the Clergy Task Force for Jewish Women International, and is currently is a member of the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Address on the Death of Abraham Lincoln
Reverend Sabato Morais, Philadelphia: Collins, 1865
Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies,
University of Pennsylvania

Living the Land Lieboff Diploma
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By Rabbi Elyse Seidner-Joseph

Jews have long been known as “the people of the book,” connected deeply to Torah (Hebrew scripture) and Jewish law (Talmud and later commentaries). However, in biblical times, agriculture was deeply rooted into Jewish life and culture; growing cycles and harvests were connected to most Jewish historical holidays. Today, Jews celebrate holidays through their related biblical stories often forgetting the historic agricultural connections.

Sukkot for example, commemorates the forty years of wandering in the desert following the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, but Sukkot is also a harvest holiday. Also known as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering, Sukkot is a time of thanking God for the harvest: “At the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field.” [Exodus 23:16]

In the late 1800s, German Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded an ambitious agricultural program that provided a way for Jews to escape the grinding poverty and persecution of Czarist Russia. De Hirsch was hoping that resettlement into agricultural communities would help Jews start new lives in more fortunate, safe, and healthy circumstances. In the United States, forests were cleared by new immigrants, and in 1892, sixty Jewish families arrived in Woodbine, New Jersey to start farming. The Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School started shortly thereafter to teach the immigrants how to work the land. Woodbine was proudly hailed as “the first all-Jewish town since the fall of Jerusalem.” Unfortunately, de Hirsch’s bold endeavor did not succeed for long—bad soil, swarms of mosquitoes, and the lure of city life made this a well-intentioned, but one-generation, experiment. Although no longer an agricultural settlement, Woodbine remained a home to many Jewish families for generations and still exists today.

Even though the agricultural enterprise at Woodbine did not survive, the Jewish people’s connection to the earth has deep roots in Torah that are still bearing fruit today. Jewish farms for committed young farmers, CSA’s (community-supported agriculture) and gleaning gardens at synagogues are sprouting up across America.

Many Sukkot customs continue to connect non-farming Jews to the land. These include construction of a sukkah, a temporary, fragile shelter, which we live (or eat our meals) in for eight days. During Sukkot, we say a daily blessing over a lulav (branches of palm, willow, and myrtle) and etrog, a yellow citron fruit native to Israel.

Commitment to sustainable food sources, ecology, and issues around food production, distribution, nutrition, and safety emerge from Jewish values in Torah, such as the commandments to be caring stewards of the earth, to let the land lay fallow every seven years (shmita), to feed the poor through gleaning of the fields, and thank God for the harvest. Here in 21st century America, Jews are again living successfully as people of the book AND people of the earth.

Rabbi Elyse Seidner-Joseph was ordained in January 2013 by the Aleph Rabbinic Program a non-denominational, decentralized program that understands its core mission as the spiritual renewal of Judaism. A former physician who left the practice of medicine due to disability, Elyse holds a Master of Arts in Jewish Studies from Gratz College. She attended the Juilliard School as a classical pianist, studied Shakespearean literature at Penn, and graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Rabbi Elyse was a member of the first student cohort of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders project.

Diploma of Louis Lieboff, Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, Woodbine, 1918
National Museum of American Jewish History
What is your Food Worth? Is a two-year long conversation about food, ethics, sustainability, and eating Jewish, presented by Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish history, in partnership with the National Museum of American Jewish History, and Congregation Rodeph Shalom. Learn more at

Leaving It Half Finished
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1995368-3-eva baen-ccBy Rabbi James Q. Kahn

Ordinary items can often capture great meaning. In 1913, Eva Baen joined more than 2 million primarily Eastern European Jews who came to America between 1880-1924. Unlike some, Eva did not leave a difficult life. On the contrary, her family was financially comfortable, her parents loving, yet she longed for something more.

At the age of 17, Eva left the life she knew in her native Russia on a ship bound for Philadelphia to pursue an education. When she arrived, her uncle took her in and she was also met by her two brothers who had already settled in America. While she knew where she was headed and why, the journey must have been filled both with loss and hope—loss at leaving her parents and home behind, and hope for a better life in America. The runner you see here was born on that voyage; the product of a kit Eva purchased to pass time at sea. Woven amongst its threads is the tale of her journey to a new life.

Eva left the embroidered runner unfinished—mirroring the life she left behind in Russia. She could have returned to it; her talents with needle and thread were well honed during her job stitching blouses at a Philadelphia shirtwaist factory. It would seem that Eva found the runner completed its purpose.

Can you relate? Are there objects in your life that represent challenges faced, dreams realized, or journeys taken? Often, these items find themselves in crowded drawers and mysterious basement boxes. They rest there, patiently waiting to be re-discovered and to remind you of your own life.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, captures a similar tale. According to Rabbinic tradition, the holiday commemorates the day Moses descended Mt. Sinai carrying tablets inscribed with Ten Commandments. But, it was not Moses’ first trip down the mountain, nor the first set of tablets inscribed with Ten Commandments. Another set had existed—one now in pieces, smashed in rage when Moses returned from atop Mt. Sinai to find Israel engaged in idolatry, worshipping a Golden Calf.

God forgave the Israelites’ act of betrayal, and in doing so, inspired Yom Kippur, a holiday dedicated to the repairing of relationships. Tradition holds that the shards of the broken tablets were kept. They journeyed with the Israelites, eventually finding a home in the Great Temple in Jerusalem, alongside the whole tablets.

The broken pieces symbolized God’s hurt and betrayal. Yet, the Israelites treasured them as eternal reminders of what can be overcome. They represented the journey the Israelites took, the physical 40-year wandering through the desert as well as the spiritual and emotional journey from slavery to freedom. Eva went on to have a full life in the United States, but her runner remained a reminder of her voyage and emotions frozen in time. While people grow and change, even forget, objects remain. They yearn to share their story, to spark memories of who we once were, and inspire reflection as to where we wish to be. On Yom Kippur, we look back at the past and that which is unfinished, broken, or a reminder of loss even as we look forward to the future.

Rabbi James Kahn is the Director of Jewish Engagement and Chaplaincy at Jewish Social Services Agency, where with years of experience in the field of Jewish education and engagement, most recently serving as Senior Jewish Educator at University of Maryland Hillel. In addition to his work with Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Kahn was one of ten innovative rabbinic-educators hired by Hillel’s Schusterman International Center and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation to rethink the field of informal Jewish education in a college setting. Rabbi Kahn was ordained at Boston’s Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he also earned a master’s in Jewish studies. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida with a bachelor’s in religious studies, specializing in comparative mysticism.

Table runner stitched by Eva Baen
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Clara K. Braslow in memory of her parents

Recording the Past
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By Rabbi Richard Hirsh Yiddish Songs

Chapter 32 of Deuteronomy depicts Moses offering his final words of wisdom to the Israelites in poetic verse, forty years after leaving Egypt. He struggles to do what so many leaders do nearing their deaths: convey the significance of his experiences to those who themselves never experienced them. Moses is trying to put into a few succinct phrases the essential things that an older generation has to teach to a younger one: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past…” [Deuteronomy 32:7] But perhaps equally important is that Moses charges the younger generation with the responsibility to do the same when they have reached maturity: “Enjoin (these words) upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.” [Deuteronomy 32: 46]

Barry SistersWhile ancient prose could have been used to convey what was witnessed by an earlier generation, the fact that the Bible records these final words of Moses as poetry, even as song, suggests that there is a special power in music that touches the soul and activates our memory. Even when the words may fade, melodies often invoke memories and associations that convey shared identity.

Music and song help create as well as convey a culture. In the Museum on the second floor there is an area devoted to late twentieth century TV and film clips that include a few musical numbers such as Barbra Streisand’s dramatic finale in Yentl and “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. We also find what the Museum wisely recognizes as so much Fiddler Postermore than “kitsch:” vinyl records of the Barrie Sisters, Yiddish Songs Mama Never Taught Me, Two Sides of Pinchik, and more. Looking at these album covers we see in musical shorthand much of the story of the experience of twentieth century American Jews attempting to maintain their identity and also integrate into American society. When our parents and grandparents placed these vinyl discs on their record players they were able to evoke through song and music their connection to far-away Israel, and their recollections of Shabbat and holiday melodies from the dinner table as well as the synagogue. And when their children listened in, they heard their elders passing down to them experiences, hopes, and dreams—not necessarily in the sacred chant of the synagogue service, but in the popular folk melodies and words of everyday Jews increasingly confident in their place in a new land.

When we stand in front of a poster from the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, we are witness to the re-telling of a time and a place and a way of Jewish life that has long passed, but remains resonant and even familiar. Just like Moses in this week’s Torah reading, we assume the challenging task of conveying the significance of things once seen to those who themselves never experienced them.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He currently serves as co-chair of the Clergy Task Force on Domestic Violence of JWI (Jewish Women International), on the editorial board of Sh’ma magazine, and on the boards of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, and the National Council of Synagogues.


The Barry Sisters in Israel
The Barry Sisters
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Rosalie Barnett Willis

Yiddish Songs Mama Never Taught Me
Patsy Abbott
National Museum of American Jewish History

Poster, Fiddler on the Roof
National Museum of American Jewish History

Returning to the Land of Your Soul Sacred stories Rosh Hashana 1
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By Rabbi Michael Ross and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

A fresh start. A second chance. Who doesn’t want that? Those are the promises of Rosh Hashanah, and those are the promises that brought most of our ancestors to these shores.

For most of those who came to the United States from Europe in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, their travels ended when they arrived on the East Coast, or possibly in the Midwest. But for some, the journey continued to California—slowly at first, and then in increasing numbers over time.

The children of Eastern European immigrants built a Conservative synagogue, Sinai Temple, in 1906. Relocating to its permanent home in Westwood in 1956, the solid grand architecture signaled that this was a community that had “arrived.” These Jews were here to stay, and very much on par with their non-Jewish neighbors who were building their own houses of worship that looked very much like the one you see in the film.

Sinai Temple, along with Wilshire Boulevard Temple, established some decades earlier, were the spiritual homes of many Los Angeles Jews. Many of the most well-known Jewish entertainers, writers, and musicians in Los Angeles were members and found themselves in the pews of those intuitions every Rosh Hashanah.

Just as they and their parents had come to L.A. seeking new lives, lives in which they could re-invent themselves, they came on the High Holidays for its spirit of spiritual reinvention and reconnection.

On Rosh Hashanah, the congregants at Sinai Temple, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and the many other synagogues that were built and then re-built would gather and hear the shofar (ram’s horn) blast. Like a spiritual alarm clock, it woke them to the possibilities of taking the second chances promised to all people by the holiday of teshuvah—return.

The Jewish recipe for teshuvah, for returning to our best selves, is simple and direct. Feel a measure of remorse for that which has gone wrong, see how we want it to change, commit to making the change, and moving in that direction. The rabbis of the Talmud (compilation of Jewish law) teach that if we take the first steps in each of those directions, God will come the rest of the way to help us.

Whether it was the journey to Los Angeles, the building of synagogues in that city, or Rosh Hashanah itself—all are stories of the human capacity for reinvention and renewal. They are not always simple or short journeys, but they are always there for us to take, if we are at least willing to take the first step, lay the first brick, or really hear the call of the shofar which invites us to begin the process.

Rabbi Michael Ross is a Reconstructionist rabbi, educator, and editor living in suburban Philadelphia. He is the Education Director at Am Haskalah in Bethlehem, PA and Hayom in Phoenixville, PA, an independent Jewish learning center dedicated to the study of “Present-Tense Judaism.” He leads scholar-in-residence weekends and High Holiday services at Chavurah B’Yachad in Salt Lake City and is a member of the founding cohort of “Rabbis Without Borders.” He recently co-edited the children’s prayer-book, “Kol HaNo’ar: The Voice of Children.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Film, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, California
National Museum of American Jewish History

union membership bookTaking the First Step
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By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD

The early labor movement is a story of liberation. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, many workers faced low wages, long hours, and unsanitary conditions. Bathroom breaks, fair pay, sick leave, and vacation were for most like dreams of a promised land.

The biblical story of the journey to the Promised Land begins with the Exodus from Egypt. Moses takes center stage in this drama, it is top down leadership. Likewise the labor movement had many well known leaders like Samuel Gompers and Sidney Hillman. There is a legend that the Exodus, specifically the parting of the Red Sea would not have happened had not Nachshon literally taken the first steps. According to this legend, Moses puts his arms out over the water, like God instructs, but the waters do not split. It is only when Nachshon, a regular Israelite, walks into the water, up to his neck, does the sea part into two creating a dry path towards freedom. Nor would the Exodus have happened without the people of Israel who followed and did the hard work of walking the difficult path towards liberation.

Clara Leimlich was the Nachshon of a major strike of women workers in 1909. Leimlich emigrated from Ukraine in 1903; just three years later she helped organize Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union (ILGWU). Only three years after that, in 1909, did she stand up at a union meeting and call for a general strike. While union leaders, like Samuel Gompers, could not give the masses a direction, 23-year-old Leimlich stepped into the waters and led the way. The strike that followed is now known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” although some estimate that close to 30,000 mostly women workers joined the strike.

Like the wandering in the desert, the journey towards better working conditions for garment workers took time and effort and relied on the sacrifices of many. In 1914 a socialist-minded group of workers broke with the more conservative United Garment Workers to form the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Members of this new union showed commitment to a vision of a better future and were willing to walk a long difficult road to ensure the freedom and fairness they sought. Members were involved in long strikes and lock outs. But the ACWA, under the leadership of Sidney Hillman, would go on to secure significant gains such as a 44 hour work week in men’s garment production and establish a bank and cooperative housing for union members that are still in existence today. Recognizing the diversity of its members, the ACWA published membership books with bylaws and dues information in many languages like Yiddish.

The road to liberation, in ancient times as well as modern ones, is challenging. Labor Day is more than the last hurrah of summer, it is an opportunity to acknowledge the work of people who fought and continue to fight to make the world a better place.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Membership book, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Philadelphia, 1919
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of the Anne and John P. McNulty Foundation in honor of Lyn M. and George M. Ross
In 1976, the ACWA merged with the Textile Workers of America to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textiles Workers Union (ACTWU). The ACTWU merged with the ILGWU to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees or UNITE.

Ties That Bind Tallitbag
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By Rabbi Yonah Berman

Whether it’s planning to spend a night away from home, or moving to a new country, what we pack speaks volumes to how we plan to spend our time. Especially for someone moving to a new country, the possessions they decide to take with them—and those they choose not to take with them—reflect their sense of who they are, and the lives they hope to lead in their new homes.

Throughout the era of mass immigration to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people brought many items of practical value with them to America. My own grandmother still has a suitcase full of down feathers that she brought with her on a steam ship from Poland in 1938, thinking that they could be used to make a blanket or a coat.

Immigrants also brought items of sentimental and even spiritual value as well. The bag in the case before you is one example of such an object. Used to hold and transport Tefillin (phylacteries)—prayer amulets containing inspiring passages from the Hebrew Bible and worn on the forehead and arm during morning prayers—it represents the portability of traditions observed in Europe and the possibility of celebrating that tradition in America as well. This embroidered velvet bag was made in Russia and given to Lazar Kushnier for his bar mitzvah. Kushnier brought it with him to America and eventually passed it on to his son to use.

In fact, the same grandmother who brought the suitcase full of feathers for practical reasons, also brought along a copy of the biblical Scroll of Esther with her when she emigrated from Poland in 1938. I read from that Scroll each year on the holiday Purim, remembering her and all those who made similar journeys.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Moses is speaking to the Children of Israel as they enter the Land of Israel after 40 years of travel: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” [Deuteronomy 19:13-14]

How can one sustain religious observances and customs across multiple generations? In part, by answering the question implicit in Moses’ speech: As you leave your previous dwellings behind, what will you bring with you as you establish a new home in a new land? How will you connect that which has come before you, and share it with those who come after you, so that relationships with our heritage and with God remain intact? Like my grandmother, and like Lazar Kushnier, we must continue to preserve our traditions by bringing them with us and sharing them with the next generation.

Rabbi Yonah Berman is the Rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe, an Orthodox synagogue in Brighton, Massachusetts. A native of Teaneck NJ, Rabbi Berman studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and received his BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University. After graduation, he returned to Israel and served in the IDF in a front-line tank unit, where he was awarded for his performance during training. During his studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Rabbi Berman held internships at CLAL, the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale, and Beth David Congregation in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Tallit-tefillin bag of Lazar Kushnier, Russia
National Museum of American Jewish History

Stepping Towards Freedom Stiles
AUGUST 24, 2013 KI TAVO 
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By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD

“When you enter the land … you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land... put it in a basket… The priest shall take the basket from your hand… You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean…’” [Deuteronomy 26: 1-5]

The Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with Moses instructing the people of Israel on what to do upon entering the Land of Israel. In addition to giving gifts of thanksgiving to the priest, they are to declare the origins of their faith, beginning with the story of Abraham’s fugitive escape. The abilities to share gifts, tell one’s story without inhibitions, and declare one’s faith are definitive signs freedom.

At the time of Aaron Lopez’s birth in 1731, Judaism was outlawed in his native Portugal. He and his family, like many others, hid their Judaism with fear of death and practiced Catholicism in public. Lopez arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in 1752 and hoped that this new community would allow for the freedoms mentioned in Ki Tavo.

But freedom and homecoming are not simply achieved. The British colony of Rhode Island allowed Jewish settlers to practice their religion. Lopez did not have to hide his Judaism, even undergoing circumcision as a declaration of his faith. He thrived as a merchant, soon becoming one of the leading merchants in the colony, shipping rum, sugar, dry goods, lumber, and slaves between North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Aaron Lopez petitioned for citizenship in Rhode Island under the British Parliamentary Act of 1740 that allowed Jews living in the colonies to become citizens after seven years of residency. In March 1762 his petition went before the high priests of his day, the Rhode Island Supreme Court. There, Lopez publically professed the Jewish religion and requested that this place be formally made his home by granting him full rights as a citizen. This request was rejected, but in October of the same year, Lopez applied for and was granted citizenship in Massachusetts. Even as Lopez petitioned for his rights, he continued to trade slaves as part of his growing shipping business. The lawful perpetuation of slavery continued as individual demands of equality turned into larger protests, war, and the eventual establishment of the United States of America.

Arriving in the colonies meant access to more freedom and opportunity for many of the small number of Jews who settled in the years before the Revolution. But the process was not automatic, nor was it universal even after the War of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Constitution outlawed a religion test for citizens to hold federal office, but individual states could still limit political office to Christians. New Hampshire was the last state to eliminate religious oaths for holding office; only doing so in 1877. Even though the United States was a land of possibility for Jewish immigrants, it still proved imperfect for many. Slavery continued for another century. Women did not gain the right to vote until the 20th century. Civil rights are still large part of the national political conversation. Freedom for all—to be fully oneself—has proven to be a work in progress.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Notes of Ezra Stiles, Rhode Island, 1762
Yale University, Beinecke Library, Ezra Stiles papers
Ezra Stiles, future president of Yale College and friend of Aaron Lopez, took notes during the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s proceedings regarding Lopez’s petition for citizenship.

The Power of Small Tallit
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By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse, contains a litany of laws covering a myriad of topics: war, divorce, agriculture, public safety, slavery, sexuality, animal husbandry, memory, and vengeance. Standing on its own in the middle of the portion, sandwiched between these weighty issues is a brief comment, “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” [Deuteronomy 22:12]

This terse note on fashion is a cornerstone of Jewish life for many men and women. When praying, adults—historically it was only men, but in recent generations, many women have undertaken this commandment—wrap themselves in a tallit, a prayer shawl with fringes tied neatly on the four corners. A smaller version, a tallit katan, literally a “small tallit” exists too, with similar four corners and knotted fringes. And it is this smaller version, often worn throughout the day, not just during prayers, and the compact verse that inspired it, that stands out among the many laws as the constant reminder of communal connections and personal responsibility. Young boys as well as adult men, wear it between their bodies and their clothing, like a spiritual coat of arms, each knot, symbolic of one of the 613 Jewish laws, laws that help mediate between personal experience and the community.

This particular tallit katan belonged to Samuel Stein who was born in Poland in 1886. The ritual fringes are typical of all such garments but the exquisite embroidery sets it apart. Whether it was made for the young Samuel by a relative or purchased for him, the care put into this handiwork added depth and meaning to an already sacred object. A young married man when he came to America, where he worked as a baker in Philadelphia, Samuel chose to bring this child-sized tallit katan with him as a reminder not only of his past, but the enduring power of tradition.

Often we look to the big and bold to carry the weight of that which is important. We assume that we must broadcast it as loudly as possible in order to express value. But sometimes all we need are a short verse, a small garment, and tiny knots to remind us of what is important to us and to our communities.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Tallit katan of Samuel Stein, Poland, ca. 1888
National Museum of American Jewish History

When American and Jewish Are One Brandeis Zionism
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By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

What does it mean to build a great society? While that phrase may be most closely associated (in recent years at least) with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, it has been the animating focus of many great American leaders, and one of the central issues for the Jewish people from the start.

At first glance, nothing about Louis Brandeis’ early life seems indicative of his future role as one of the most important Jewish American Zionist activists of his age. Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised by parents who emphasized universal humanist values over religious Jewish observances. We have to wonder, how did this child from a secular family become such a passionate advocate for the future State of Israel?

In fact, his upbringing had everything to do with it, and reminds us all that the values we learn as children can express themselves in many different ways over the course of our lifetimes. A useful thing for both parents and children to remember.

Brandeis came to see Zionism as a natural and necessary expression of his parents’ lessons about human dignity, as well as a powerful application of America’s political and societal values. He came to see the establishment of the Jewish State as yet another way in which people could build a model version of a great society.

In the speech advertised by the poster before which you stand, the future Supreme Court Justice declared the following:

“The highest Jewish ideals are essentially American in a very important particular. It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.”

Like the words found in Deuteronomy 16:18, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice,” both America and Israel were meant to embody the oldest Jewish ideals of a great society—a society marked by equal justice for all and assured by the presence of great jurists and trusted officials. Louis Brandeis committed his life to that goal, wherever it could be achieved. For him, and for so many other Jewish Americans to this very day, nothing could be more American or more Jewish.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Poster, The Aims of the Zionist Movement, Boston, 1915
Dedicated in honor of Maya Rosenberg’s recovery by Lyn and George Ross

You can learn more about Justice Louis D. Brandeis in our Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame.

Celebrating our Heritage
AUGUST 3, 2013 RE'EH
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By Rabbi Elianna Yolkut

The birth of a child is one of the most precious and precarious times in our lives. When we welcome a new life into the world, we are overcome with exhaustion, yet overjoyed with the perfect child we are holding in our arms. In the Jewish tradition, while we are still in a daze of new parenthood, we are commanded to take our eight-day-old sons and ritually circumcise them. In doing so, we welcome them into the covenant of the Jewish people and give them their Hebrew names, connecting them to their past and linking them to a future. What a difficult task – literally marking our precious children in the earliest days of their lives, when protection and comfort are all we want to give them. Yet, for thousands of years, the Jewish community has fulfilled this ancient rite as a way of celebrating our heritage.

circumcision gownThis artifact is a circumcision gown, donned at the brit milah (the ritual circumcision) of Harry Hoffberger in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884. Notice the tiny blood stain in the mid-section of this beautiful yet simple white garment. Why wear a gown for this serious act of deep religious significance? Certainly, people considered then (and still consider), that a blood stain might be likely on this delicate garment. What, then, is the point of dressing a little baby up for this moment?

Imagine for a moment you are the parents of this child; he is yours, he is special, he is a part of you. Deep in your heart, you want to share with him your faith’s  wisdom, community, and heritage in celebration of his new life. You want his connection to Judaism to be filled with beauty, awe, and inspiration. And so in the earliest days of his life, days he will not remember except when you will tell him the story, you dress him in pure white. You place him before your family and friends, before your community and you commit on his behalf. You commit him not to a perfect life, but to covenant with his faith and with God. This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, recounts many moments of great celebration in ancient life. While joy governed these events, many included animal sacrifice, a bloody ritual in which the Israelites offered God part of their livestock. The world is both beautiful and messy. In Jewish tradition, we create balance between give and take. When we celebrate our successes and privileges, we also must take the time to thank God for what we have by reaffirming our connection to Judaism.

As a parent, you commit to teaching your child how to be a source of goodness and kindness in the imperfect world.  You want him to remember even in his most private and intimate moments that he is a part of a bigger story and a deeper chain of past, present and future. The Torah teaches in Deuteronomy 12:28, “Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.”  We all have moments like those described in the Torah where we instruct our children to be gracious, charitable, and righteous, so that their lives will be filled with joy and comfort. Perhaps, the precarious timing of the ritual and the simplicity of the ritual garment is a reminder that we all have these hopes for our children- a simple yet profound human desire.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut received her rabbinic ordination from the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2006 and holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology from Brandeis University. Following rabbinical school Elianna served as the Assistant Rabbi and Religious School Director of Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, CA, and as an adjunct faculty member at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and the Fingerhut School of Education at the American Jewish University. Upon moving to New York in 2010 she worked as the Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown. Currently Elianna serves the Jewish community as a freelance rabbi through a portfolio of teaching, speaking, writing, and guiding individuals and families through lifecycle events.

Gown of Harry Hoffberger, Baltimore, ca. 1884
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Etta Weinberg, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Universal Blessing  freedom seder 1
JULY 27, 2013 EKEV
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By Rabbi Doug Heifetz

The weekly Torah portion, Ekev, connects spirituality with eating. It states, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you.” [Deuteronomy 8:10] The Sabbath and other festivals all offer chances for splendid meals and, in response, we express gratitude for our many gifts and blessings. Jews often ritualize this gratitude through birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals.

However, it’s not just the quality of the food that elicits this response. The participants in our meals and celebrations can strengthen our gratitude, as well. When we share the occasion with others, we not only feel a sense of bonding with them, but also a shared sense of gratitude and exaltation. The emotion can bring together participants from many different backgrounds. We transcend many differences of social and religious background as we join together in the most universal spiritual experience. The more diverse the group, the more united and grateful we feel.

For generations, diversity has been part of American Jewish celebrations. I grew up with stories about the religious feasts that my great grandfather celebrated with his Native American neighbors in Oklahoma, when he settled there in the early 20th Century. He apparently learned Choctaw before English, and spoke both languages with a strong Yiddish accent. According to family legend, he delighted in attending the feasts of his new neighbors, and returned the invitation at Jewish holidays.

Freedom SederNeighbors, and strangers, came together on April 4, 1969, on the third night of Passover and the first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for a celebration of freedom and a festive meal in the basement of a Washington, DC church. Inspired by the haggadah written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Freedom Seder brought together people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds to participate in the traditional retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, connecting the ancient Israelites’ liberation to the modern struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. To honor that first Freedom Seder, and to continue its legacy, the Museum hosted its first (annual) Freedom Seder in March 2013. Over 250 people gathered in person and another 400 participated virtually, as we celebrated freedom, tradition, and our continued struggle for a better world, all during a communal meal.

The verses of Ekev remind us that meals should restore our sense of pure, universal thanksgiving. All the more so, when can we share festive meals with people of many different backgrounds, we can experience an outpouring of gratitude that transcends cultural differences.

Rabbi Doug Heifetz serves as the rabbi of Oseh Shalom, a 300- household Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Maryland. He received his ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2005. He teaches with the goal of creating a more compassionate, balanced, reflective and healthy world. He often speaks and writes about immigrant rights, global warming, food, health and the spread of chronic disease. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two young children.

The Freedom Seder (Front and Back Cover)
Arthur Waskow, Washington, D.C.: The Micah Press, 1970
National Museum of American Jewish History

Healing through Poetry tisha b'av
JULY 16, 2013 TISHA B’AV 
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By Rabbi Jason Herman

How do we mourn and express our grief for tragedies? How do we remember them when we are separated from them by large amounts of time and space? How do we speak about, let alone think about, the unthinkable? Jews living in post- WWII America knew their coreligionists in Europe had just experienced the most horrific tragedy in all of human history. Many had family members who perished in the Holocaust.

In the late 1940s, the American Jewish community grew to include survivors and refugees displaced by the Holocaust. Speaking of their tragedies was often difficult – the emotions were too raw and painful. Yet American Jews knew that in order to give meaning to the lives that were lost, and mourn the tragedy, stories would need to be told, and in a palpable way.

In 1946, novelist Howard Fast joined cartoonist, William Gropper to write, Never to Forget: Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto. The book coined the now ubiquitous expression “Never Forget.” Never to Forget recounts the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising through poetry and illustration. It began to tell a story, to bring to life the souls of the perished, to speak the unspeakable.

The use of poetry to describe tragedy and to mourn it is not new to Jews. Each year, Jews commemorate the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which the first and second Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, ending Jewish sovereignty for nearly two millennia. It is also a day that mourns and remembers countless other tragedies in Jewish history.

How are the stories told on the Ninth of Av? Through poetry. Beginning with the chanting of the Book of Lamentations in the evening, and continuing with the recitation of numerous mournful poems, called Kinnot, during the day, the poetry of the Ninth of Av relates the tragedies of a community’s destruction. We say in verse what can’t be said in prose.

Poetry gives our words rhythm, and we often pair poetry with song, the medium of hope. We sing, for even as we mourn, we are hopeful. Never to Forget ends, “WHEN will our ancient greeting have portent. Peace be unto thee, And unto thee, peace.” Looking to heal, Fast calls forth the past just as does the end of biblical Lamentations, “Return us, O Lord to Yourself, and we will return. Renew our days as of old.”

Rabbi Jason Herman serves as the spiritual leader of the West Side Jewish Center in New York City and also serves as the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He is a graduate of the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and has previously worked as an investment banker.

Booklet, Never to Forget: The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto
Howard Fast and William Gropper, New York:
Book League of Jewish People Fraternal Order, I.W.O., 1946
National Museum of American Jewish History

The Strength of Comfort,  pajamas
and the Comfort of Strength

JULY 13, 2013 DEVARIM 
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By Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

Anyone who strove to immigrate to America saw this country as a place where, through a combination hard work and good luck, their children would have a better life than they themselves had. That was one of the defining aspects of the American Jewish immigration experience, as well—a strong desire for parents to offer greater opportunities to the next generation.

So while Jewish immigration from Europe to America certainly had an element of “push” to it, as Jews escaped pogroms and antisemitism, there was an even stronger “pull” element. Immigrants might not have known what America would be, but they all came to these shores with a vision of courage and faith. Indeed, courage and faith go hand in hand—we don’t know what may come down the road, but our strength of heart is what allows us to build for the future.

Helga Weiss’ parents lived this idea. As conditions in Nazi-occupied Europe worsened, many anxious Jewish parents searched for ways to send their children to safety. In 1939, eight-year-old Helga was one of the 50 lucky Viennese children to obtain visas to America through the assistance of Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus. The American couple had secured the support of the State Department after assuring them that there was a temporary place of residence for the refugees at a summer camp owned by the fraternal organization Brith Shalom, of which the Krauses were prominent members. Helga’s parents, learning of the Kraus’s mission in a Vienna newspaper, brought their child to meet the Krauses and to undergo the examinations to determine if she was mentally and physically able to travel to America. Before sending her to America, her parents bartered with a seamstress to transform one of her mother’s dresses into a set of floral pajamas. It would be a talisman—a reminder of home as she braved a new and unfamiliar world. We can only imagine how scared she must have been to have left her home, her parents and her world behind, and how much courage she must have had in order to overcome those fears to strive to find a better place.

helga weissThat message is also one that appears in parashat Devarim. Devarim begins the book of Deuteronomy, the book-long recapitulation of the Israelites’ journey, and several times in the portion, God tells the Israelites to have courage. Moses recalls how scared the Israelites were when they heard the reports from the scouts, and how difficult it would be to conquer the land of Canaan. But he reminds them, “I said to you, ‘Have no dread or fear of them…where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son…’” [Deuteronomy 1:29-31]

In other words, in order for the Israelites to discover their own courage, they needed some parental reassurance from God. And we can easily hear the resonance in these words in what Helga Weiss’ parents might have said to her, “Do not be terrified, and do not be afraid, and know how much we care for you.”

Ultimately, courage comes from a hope that the future will be better than the present. And sometimes, to find that strength, we need some gentleness and comfort.

Perhaps something as simple as floral pajamas.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, blogger for the Huffington Post, and the creator of the blog “Sinai and Synapses—Judaism and a Closer Look at Human Nature.” He was In the initial group to hold the Balfour Brickner Fellowship, a joint program with CLAL and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism aiming to integrate Jewish textual tradition with modern social and political issues. Additionally, he represented Hebrew Union College at the international conference, “Building Towards the Future: Jewish-Christian Relations in Cultural Context.”

Pajamas of Helga Weiss, Vienna (Cover)
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Helga E. Milberg in memory of Rosa and Emil Weiss

Helga Weiss, 1939
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Helga E. Milberg in memory of Rosa and Emil Weiss

What Matters Most RichmondPrayer
July 4, 2013 Independence Day 
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By Rabbi Doug Heifetz

Around Independence Day, an early document of American Jewish life reminds us what matters most about our country. The “Richmond Prayer” of 1789, a Jewish prayer for the country, offers a glimpse of an elated and grateful Jewish community.

Jews in many lands had written and recited prayers for their governments, but this one stands out. Where other versions pray plainly for the well-being of the ruler, this Revolution-era manuscript reflects a wholehearted exaltation. It shows a joyous belief in America. The prayer describes the new nation as ‘us,’ reflecting a unique sense of Jewish belonging and commitment. Where other versions refer to this land, its ruler, and his enemies, the Richmond Prayer expresses gratitude for our country and our victories over our enemies. It asks for wisdom for our judges and our governors.

The prayer’s most striking praise for the new country’s leadership, however, is the acrostic spelling “Washington.” That is, the first Hebrew letter from each of the central lines spells a transliteration of the president’s name. Traditionally, acrostics in Jewish poetry encoded the names of that work’s own Jewish authors or the community’s highest Jewish patron. Thus, the manuscript demonstrates an unprecedented esteem for a gentile leader, the new president.

Why did our Jewish forebears feel such a unique appreciation for Washington? Surely they appreciated and shared his passionate beliefs in religious tolerance, and freedom and opportunity for all. Indeed, President Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, responding to a letter presented to him by the congregation’s warden, Moses Seixas, that “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

GWletterfrontThese documents strongly echo the conviction that Jews – and people of all origins – should feel at home in America. Unfortunately, this belief is of course aspirational and not fully realized, then or now. President Washington failed to fully live up to his own words, as evident by his record of slave ownership.

Today, too, we live in a country where discrimination and injustice are still present. However, these documents remind us that we may aspire to a vision no higher, in Jewish and American terms, than to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
This aspiration for our country deserves celebration, especially on Independence Day. May the flash of fireworks and their thundering, and the sights and sounds of celebration everywhere rededicate us to this, our mission of America.

Rabbi Doug Heifetz serves as the rabbi of Oseh Shalom, a 300- household Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Maryland. He received his ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2005. He teaches with the goal of creating a more compassionate, balanced, reflective and healthy world. He often speaks and writes about immigrant rights, global warming, food, health and the spread of chronic disease. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two young children.

Prayer for the country, Richmond, Virginia, 1789 
National Museum of American Jewish History, a gift from ARA Services, Inc. Conservation funds provided by the Robert Saligman Charitable Fund

Letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, August, 1790
Courtesy of the Morris Morgenstern Foundation

Called to Serve  Soliscohenuniform
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By Rabbi Heidi Hoover

In the double Torah portion Matot-Mase’ei—“matot” means “tribes,” and “mase’ei” means “marches”—we read about Israelites drafted for military action. For a campaign against the Midianites, “Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign,’” [Num. 31:3]. There is no sense here that the men are volunteers, though there is a sense that any man called will serve.

In the Museum, there is a uniform jacket worn by Philadelphian Myer Solis-Cohen in World War I. A doctor, he was drafted and served as a Captain in a base hospital, a field hospital, and with the 78th Artillery Regiment in France. He was called, and he served. A generation earlier, Myer’s father, Jacob Da Silva Solis-Cohen, served as well, as an assistant surgeon in the Union Army and Navy in the Civil War.

There have historically been questions of Jewish loyalty—will Jews hold themselves separate from the lands in which they live, reserving their allegiance for the Jewish people? Jewish Americans are no more or less war-like than non-Jewish Americans, but they are just as loyal. The example of the Solis-Cohen father and son, like so many other Jews in so many places, shows that Jews, like other citizens, are ready to serve their country when they are needed.

In Matot-Mase’ei, the Israelites called to battle go willingly because they are bound to their nation by tribal affiliation, by shared experience, and by common dreams and goals. American Jews are bound to their country by national affiliation, by shared experience, and by common dreams and goals as well. The difference is that in the United States, the Jews are a tiny minority, while the Israelite nation was, well, mostly Israelites (though not all—the Bible repeatedly speaks of “the foreigner in your midst” and how that foreigner is to be treated, indicating that there were non-Israelites who lived and traveled with them). American Jews took their prayer books, their Bibles, and their connection to Judaism and marched off to war beside their non-Jewish fellow citizens.

There is a young man who grew up attending my Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. After his bar mitzvah, he found a connection to Judaism through the Hebrew language and volunteering as an assistant in one of our religious school classes. A few months ago, this 19-year-old chose to enlist in the Marines. At the beginning of boot camp, he and his fellow recruits were kept awake for 32 hours, and were given a box of food to eat: a hard-boiled egg and a ham sandwich. He refused to eat the sandwich because of the biblical prohibition on eating pork. He is an American, a Jew, and proud Marine, carrying on the tradition of families like the Solis-Cohens, and of the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.

American Jews embrace the universal ideals of opportunity and freedom in this country. And they fight for it.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover, of Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, is a proud alumna of the Academy for Jewish Religion and Gratz College; she received smicha (ordination) and her Master’s degree in Jewish Studies in May of 2011. Her undergraduate degree is from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Uniform jacket of Myer Solis-Cohen
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Kathe Teschner Solis-Cohen Jacoby

Be Inspired thefemininemystique
JUNE 29, 2013 PINCHAS 
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By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Do you have a big question about how the world works, or a sense that somehow your life could be different and better than it already is? Do you feel that you have more to offer, or deserve better than you seem to be getting? You are not alone. This week is your opportunity to be inspired by some very special women who have not only felt those feelings, but have done something about them.

Who are these great women? Their names are Betty Friedan, Corporal Eva Davidson and Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza – the daughters of Zelophehad, mentioned in Numbers 27:1. Each of these heroic women dared to think about their lives in unprecedented ways, ways that created opportunities for generations to follow, both women and men.

Betty Friedan writes in The Feminine Mystique, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’” Whether one agrees with her about that desire or not, Friedan’s insistence that we pay attention to voices and aspirations within ourselves, and within others, is both profound and beautiful. It is nothing less than a call for greater awareness of each person’s fundamental dignity and the sacredness of the freedom to pursue its realization.

The same can be said for Eva Davidson and the 299 other young women who made the revolutionary decision to volunteer for the Marine Corps in 1918. How can we not feel inspired by these women who imagined that there was a place for them even though nobody had told them so and dared to go where no women had gone before in order to claim that place and status?

Eva Davidson OrdersJust as Friedan stood on the shoulders of Davidson, they both stood on the shoulders of Zelophehad’s five daughters who, according to the story, approached Moses with the unprecedented request that they inherit their father’s possessions “even though” they were “only” daughters and not sons. Moses turned to God for guidance and God said yes, these women should inherit.

I don’t know what those five daughters looked like, but we can imagine them with faces like Corporal Davidson and Betty Friedan’s, the faces of strong women courageous enough to challenge preexisting limitations on the female gender. They remind us all that we must listen to the voices within and dare to ask bold questions, for ourselves and for others.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

The Feminine Mystique 
Betty Friedan, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Arlyn Hochberg Miller

Orders of Eva Davidson, New York, 1918 
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Judge Murray C. Goldman in memory of his cousin Eva Davidson Radbill
Located in the World War I gallery on the third floor

Appreciating Others Annie Johnson A
JUNE 22, 2013 BALAK 
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By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

What does it mean to appreciate those who are genuinely different from us? This is not about being able to see that some other group, community, or individual is “really like us,” or that “deep down, we are all the same.” I appreciate that, and sometimes it’s even true, but what about when we don’t think it is?

Can we see others as genuinely other while not only appreciating them for who they are, but understanding how their “otherness” can be a resource – even something to be celebrated? In many ways, the ability to get to that understanding represents the best of America, and the promise it has held out for centuries. That is the promise we see being fulfilled in Annie Johnson’s letter to Jacob Schiff.

Jacob Schiff was the primary financial supporter of the Galveston Immigration Plan, an early twentieth century immigration campaign that aimed to settle incoming Jewish immigrants in areas of the United States other than East Coast cities. The Galveston Plan was named as such because many of the immigrants entered America through Galveston, Texas en route to new western settlements. Ms. Johnson’s request that Schiff expand his “Galveston plan” to include her mills in north Georgia is based on her deep admiration for religiously observant Jews even though she is a practicing Catholic. While in no way suggesting that the religious chasm between her and the workers she sought to resettle on her land would ever be bridged, she valued the faithfulness and integrity of people who would remain so different from her.

Annie Johnson BJews were, and would remain, “the other” for Annie Johnson, and yet, they could be appreciated for who they were. That’s a story that the ancient Canaanite prophet, Balaam, would have understood well. Reminiscent of Balaam’s story, Annie Johnson’s actions show us the timelessness of this biblical moral, illuminating it 3,000 years after its first telling.
Called by King Balak to curse the Israelites in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers, Balaam ends up singing their praises – extolling them as a community whose virtues were visible to all who cared to take note. He exclaims, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob…their kingdom shall be exalted.” (Numbers 24:5-7)

Like Ms. Johnson, Balaam remains an outside admirer – one who has no intention of being Jewish, but can still appreciate the gifts of a community not his own, even as others find such an attitude odd or even threatening.

Both Balaam and Annie Johnson challenge us to see the beauty and value in people who may be different from us, but in their differences remind us of the values to which we aspire and help us build the world in which we hope to live.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Letter from Annie Johnson to Jacob Schiff, Rome, Georgia, 1910
Lent by the American Jewish Historical Society

Time to Honor Fathers mag web
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By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD

In 1876, abolitionist Henry Clay Work composed "My Grandfather's Clock." The song, which quickly became popular, told the fictional story of a tall standing clock whose time-telling was tied to the life of the singer's grandfather. When the grandfather married, the clock struck 24 tones, and when he died, it stopped telling time. Both the symbolic clock and song function to honor the memory of Work's grandfather.

The Bible tells countless stories of fathers, recalls upon a myriad of male ancestors, and recounts numerous male genealogies. Many of the stories about biblical fathers are complex. Abraham loved his sons but was willing to sacrifice them. Jacob favored one son above the rest.

Nonetheless, Jewish tradition teaches us to honor the memory of our fathers and tell their stories. Throughout the Torah, great emphasis is placed on recalling paternal ancestry. Noah descends from Adam, Abraham from Noah. Where one comes from is important. Lessons of the fathers' lives shine through the generations. We take the time to tell and retell their stories, to recall the accomplishments and complexities of their lives.

In 2011, Margaret Anne Goldsmith donated a collection of artifacts that chronicled the five generations of her family's life in Huntsville, Alabama. Prominent among them is a grandfather clock that stood in her grandfather's hotel. The clock was purchased from a clock maker in Cincinnati in the years surrounding Clay Work's song. An expensive item, it was shipped with care to Huntsville. It passed through the generations and in January 1930, Goldsmith's grandfather, Lawrence B. Goldsmith Sr. opened the Russel Erskine hotel in Huntsville and soon had the grandfather clock installed in the lobby. Miraculously, the hotel and its business survived the depression. It became a hub of life in a town known for NASA research. The clock stood by, as did her grandfather, through decades of parties and meetings, and watched as integration and other historical milestones came to the South. The hotel closed in 1973 and the clock returned to the home of Margaret Ann's father Lawrence B. Goldsmith, Jr.

As in Clay Work's song, Goldsmith's donation of the clock to the Museum is a means of honoring the memory of her grandfather. With this action, she keeps his story alive and passes it on to future generations.

On this Father's Day, take time to honor your father and grandfathers. Ask them to tell you their stories. Share the stories of your forefathers who have passed. Consider the songs and artifacts that recall their challenges, milestones, and accomplishments. Honor their lives and their contributions.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be'chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U'llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Grandfather clock from the Russel Erskine Hotel, Huntsville, Alabama
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Margaret Anne Goldsmith in memory of the Bernstein, Herstein, Schiffman, and Goldsmith Families

Stories and Transitions Gratz sampler
JUNE 15, 2013 CHUKAT 
By Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu
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Every family has stories and traditions that get passed down through the generations. Some families and communities designate days for ritual gatherings, such as an annual Fourth of July picnic at Cousin Sarah’s, or a gathering to cheer on Aunt Frances as she runs a marathon. We take great pride in our family traditions, and often adhere to them with enthusiasm and conviction.

But what happens when a disruption occurs? Cousin Sara is in the hospital and can’t host the annual picnic. Aunt Frances broke her leg and can’t run the marathon. How do we adjust our traditions to meet a new reality?

When the Israelites left Egypt, they faced a huge disruption in life and traditions, largely due to the simple change in environment and living conditions. They came to depend on Moses and Aaron to lead the way and provide them with new narratives of family and community. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we learn that ultimately Moses and Aaron will not lead the people into the Promised Land. Again the Israelites are bereft and face a disruption.

In the Bible, continuity of leadership is maintained for the Israelites when God appoints Aaron’s son Eleazer as the new High Priest and Joshua as Moses’ successor. The Israelites will continue on to the Promised Land of Israel under new leadership, and will live out the history that we still retell today.

Jewish immigrants leaving Europe for America sought ways to continue their traditions despite moving to a new land. Many families educated their children in familial stories and Jewish tradition and language. Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) devoted her life to supporting and educating women and children. She helped raise many of her nieces and nephews despite never having children herself. Gratz recognized the need to educate Jewish children in the stories of their ancestors and to teach them basic Hebrew. She founded the first Hebrew Sunday School for which she created curricula and learning materials. Sunday School has become one of the most import vehicles for giving Jewish children a Jewish education in America. Her work has ensured the continuity of Jewish identity here in the US. It is because of Rebecca Gratz that to this day that many Jewish children continue to learn the story of Moses and Aaron.
What stories does your family or community have that you want your children to learn?

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, and holds a masters degree and ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


Sampler of Rebecca Gratz, Philadelphia
Hebrew Sunday School Society
Rebecca Gratz started this needlepoint sampler and it was completed by her niece.

Playing With Fire  why communism
JUNE 8, 2013 KORACH 
By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
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Facing intolerable conditions in Czarist Russia, a large number of Jews involved themselves with the socialist and communist movements that challenged the regime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fearing persecution, many made their way to the United States where they saw, in the political openness of American society, the possibility of living their convictions without fear.

Political thinkers like Moissaye Joseph Olgin, who in his native Russia was limited to illegal underground activism, were able to act openly, in the U.S. He wrote for local and international papers, founded his own paper The Morning Freiheit, and published Why Communism? in 1935. He was among a group of Jews who joined, with many others, to found the communist Workers Party of America, a national political party.

For American Jews, socialism and communism were also social movements permeating the most mundane aspects of life. There were socialist and communist summer camps, mother’s groups, and even sports clubs. For many Jews, socialism and communism were part of the fullest expression of American freedom.

But as we see in this week’s Torah portion, engaging with a political approach that challenges established power can have disastrous results.

red channelsA prominent man in his own right, Korach decides to challenge the existing leadership. Some of his reasoning for doing so was quite sound, and yet his effort had the potential to upset the structure of the community. Moses demands that the people distance themselves from this heresy. Korach and his loyal followers pay a high price for their defiance. They are swallowed up by the earth and consumed in fire; their presence and their concerns a mere memory.

The communism and socialism espoused by some in the United States eventually came to be seen as threatening to the fundamental nature of American society. In the 1950s, a generation of Jews, who had assumed political freedom in their new homeland could accommodate their ideological visions, found out otherwise. With the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism, Jews realized the need to distance themselves from ideas and communities that they held dear. Even those who were only peripherally connected to communism – having donated money once or gone to a meeting or two – were in danger of being seen as dangerous to the national structure. To be perceived as communist and labeled as such could mean having your name on a ‘Blacklist.’ Ostracized by the community, it was the equivalent of having a career go up in flames or be swallowed by the earth.

Watching lives torn apart by public denunciations of communism, American Jews learned the limits of political expression. Almost immediately, Jewish engagement with socialism, like Korach’s rebellion, became a mere memory.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Why Communism?
M.J. Olgin, New York: Workers Library Publishers, ca. 1935
National Museum of American Jewish History
Dedicated in honor of Dr. Bernie Segal’s birthday by Lyn and George Ross

Red Channels
New York: Counterattack: the Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism, 1950
National Museum of American Jewish History
Dedicated in honor of George Ross by Jane Barr Pino

Never See Yourself as a Grasshopper White Christmas
By Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard
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As the Israelites were about to invade the Promised Land, Moses sent out spies. He would later say that he did this at the request of the people [Deuteronomy 1:22]. Perhaps this showed a lack of Israelite confidence in God, perhaps it only revealed a lack of self-confidence. In any case, perhaps as a kind of test, God reluctantly agreed to the request. When they returned, the spies told a contradictory story: The land was “flowing with milk and honey” but the well-fortified land also “devours its settlers.”

Panicked, the spies and the people feared failure because, “We saw the Nephilim there – tha Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” [Numbers 13:33]

The spies lacked trust in God but they also lacked self-confidence. Self-confidence is a constructive and realistic attitude that helps us to believe that we will succeed. It is not surprising that ex-slaves would lack self-confidence. Slaves survive dependent on the
approval of powerful others who discourage independence. They are taught to feel inadequate and inferior. They avoid taking risks because, doubting themselves, they fear failure. The Israelite enslavement was so powerful that it distorted how the people
saw themselves and the world around them.

Over two thousand years later, Jews from Eastern Europe stood at the border of the United States. Imagine the kind of self-confidence it took for a Jewish immigrant, or any immigrant, to build a life in America. Could such a small, and often disliked, minority really come to play a role in the American economy and culture? Jewish immigrants answered with an optimistic but also realistic “yes.” They refused to see themselves as those who denigrated them saw them. These Jews did not see themselves as grasshoppers.

An immigrant from Russia, Irving Berlin went to work singing in saloons at fourteen. Although his career had the expected ups and downs, Berlin persisted and became perhaps America’s most successful popular song writer. Bing Crosby’s version of Berlin’s song “White Christmas” is, at over 50 million copies, the best-selling single of all time. Imagine that! A Jewish boy from Russia’s song captures the meaning of Christmas for a Christian America! Both parashat Shelach and Irving Berlin’s achievement remind us of a simple message: Emphasize strengths, take risks, and never see yourself as a grasshopper.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the Director of Organizational Development at Clal, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and a practicing clinical and organizational psycologist in New York, holding PhDs in Psychology and Philosophy. Rabbi Blanchard has taught at Washington, Northwestern, and Loyola Universities, as well as the Drisha Institute for Women, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, and Fordham Law School. A guest of both Oprah Winfrey and Pope Benedict XVI, Rabbi Blanchard continues to be an active voice for Clal’s mission of religious pluralism and diversity, as a participant of the Center for Christian–Jewish Understanding.

White Christmas
Irving Berlin
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana
Irving Berlin is one of the Museum’s 18 honorees in the Only In America® Gallery/Hall of Fame.

Choosing to Remember bible vies of slavery
By Rabbi Irwin Kula
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Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars.

Remembering is not a neutral act. As we tell and retell the stories of the past, we as individuals and communities choose what to remember and what to forget. We don’t faithfully record the past, rather we reconstruct our past with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind – shaping and manipulating the past in order to mold the present. Our collective memory is a filtered past, often markedly different from the objective truth of events as they happened. We tend to forget what we once knew and are embarrassed by, instead remembering how we want to see ourselves. In other words, the past is always more complicated than our community’s collective memory, as the significance of our collective memory lies not in the accuracy of the memory but in the meaning we make.

So for example, no contemporary religious or ethnic community would like to remember that some of its members opposed the abolition of slavery. But the power of a serious history museum is to afford people an opportunity to revisit events and see things as they happened. A powerful example of this is the juxtaposition of two Civil War artifacts; a pamphlet titled Bible View of Slavery by Reverend M.J. Raphall and an image of Rabbi David Einhorn. Rabbi Einhorn, an abolitionist, railed against slavery while Rev. Raphall condemned radical abolitionists for dividing the country. As uncomfortable as it may, these artifacts remind us that Jews, like their neighbors, were deeply divided about slavery and their religious leaders, like those in all religious communities, used their religions to support and legitimate their positions. These two seemingly simple artifacts – an image and a pamphlet – remind us that while we would like to believe that our religions with their calls for justice and righteousness are always on the right side of history, the truth is more complicated. Religions, like all systems, can help us do good or bad, they can romanticize the past and help us forget what embarrasses us, or can help us confront our past and encourage us to remember so that we do not repeat the injustices of the past.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, the President of Clal, a sought after speaker, and blogger for The Huffington Post and the Washington Post’s “On Faith,” has been a guest on, NBC’s Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor (Fox), Frontline (PBS), and, among others. He is a graduate of Columbia University and received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. An eighth–generation rabbi, he has headed congregations in St. Louis, MO; Queens, NY; and Jerusalem, Israel and cofounded the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Chicago.

Bible View of Slavery
Reverend M. J. Raphall, New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861
National Museum of American Jewish History

Reverend Raphall delivered this sermon in which he explained that the Bible contains no outright proscription against slavery.

As a Blue Star Museum, we offer free admission to up to 5 immediate family members (spouse or children) of active military personnel from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Where Do You Belong? 5.25 sacred stories
By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
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Where do you belong? What communities are you a part of? How do you know that you really are a welcome member of any group, be it your family, your nation, your church or synagogue? Those questions are always relevant, but perhaps never as poignant as when a nation goes to war.

As you look at the striking poster inscribed with the words, “United Behind the Service Star,” note that the organizations listed range from Jewish to Evangelical Christian to Catholic. Seven distinct banners carried by seven different people, all united in a common cause – all simultaneously part of different communities and one greater community. That understanding of belonging is what allowed this ad campaign to be a successful as it was.

For the first time in centuries, the bonds of belonging to a single nation, America, were so strong, that this poster’s message resonated with Jews and other religious minorities. We were one nation composed of many kinds of citizens, all ready to unite in support of those who served our nation.

Nowhere as they had in America did Jews, not to mention so many other immigrant minorities, experience this kind of access and equality. While it was not perfect, and remains less than perfect for some groups in this country still, it was unprecedented. It was a system which promised, in the words of the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 9:14, “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”

The poster before which you stand could only work if it were read by people who felt sufficient inclusion and equality that they could see beyond the religious and cultural differences which otherwise differentiated them. They could unite in support of all those in service, regardless of religious difference because at some level, all those in service were all theirs. Why? Because they felt largely welcomed by a system which treated each “them” as part of “us.” That is the standard for any great nation, be it biblical or contemporary.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of Clal, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Poster, United War Work Campaign, ca. 1918
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana

Nasso, The Nazirite 5.18.13Nasso, The Nazirite
MAY 18, 2013 NASSO
By Rabbi Darby Leigh
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What kind of hair do you have? Do you have long hair, short hair, or no hair at all? If you have hair, what color is it? Is it brown, blonde, white, black, green, red, purple, or something else? What style is your hair? Is it thin, thick, wavy, straight, or curly? Do you have dreadlocks, a mohawk, peyos? Do you show your hair or keep it covered?

To what extent does your hairstyle demonstrate affiliation with a particular social/cultural group, or distinction from a group? How much of your identity is connected with your hair? Put another way, if you were to wake up tomorrow with a radically different hairstyle, how might you feel?

As you look at Jerry Rubin’s book Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution, it is striking to note that one of the things Rubin and so many activists from the 1960s shared was an affinity for wearing long hair. The long hair of the “hippies” encapsulated a rejection of mainstream, normative attitudes about appearance, ideology, and values. Images of people with long hair have become iconic symbols of the 1960s, perhaps best captured in the Broadway play Hair.

In fact one of the most famous lines about hair in the play, “Swing it, flow it, long as God can grow it, my hair,” has roots (pun intended) in this week’s Torah portion. In the book of Numbers, chapter 6, we read of a figure called the Nazirite. A Nazirite could be a man or a woman and was essentially a solitary spiritual seeker, one who took a radical step in dedicating him/herself to developing a closer relationship to God by separating from the community. On this spiritual path, a Nazirite took three vows, including a vow to not cut his/her hair for the duration of being a Nazirite.

Why was growing long hair one of the Nazirite vows? Why was the same act such a powerful statement for young people in the 1960s, thousands of years later? Our hair – or lack of hair – is something that we often take for granted. We are not in control of our hair before it sprouts from our head, and we can only manipulate it once it has appeared. Perhaps a decision to not cut one’s hair signifies an acceptance of things beyond human control and an appreciation of the Energy that makes our hair grow, as well as our hearts beat and our lungs breathe – an appreciation of the Energy in which some may see God.

A life-long “truth seeker,” Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh is a native New Yorker who loves mountains. Rabbi Leigh is a fire-juggling Generation Xer who toured as a leading actor with the Tony award-winning National Theater of the Deaf and has educated others on deafness through his work with organizations such as the New York City Fire Department, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Rabbi Leigh earned his bachelor of arts in religion, summa cum laude, from the University of Rochester—where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa—and a master of arts in religion from Columbia University before attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He currently serves as Associate Rabbi at Congregation Bnai Keshet.

DO IT! Scenarios of the Revolution
Jerry Rubin, New York: Ballantine Books, 1970
National Museum of American Jewish History
Located on the second floor in the case in front of the large film screens

The Blessing of Assimilation 5.14Tallit-woman-cantor1992-WEB
MAY 14, 2013 SHAVUOT
By Rabbi Irwin Kula
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The Jewish festival of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – celebrates the encounter between God and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

As described in the Biblical book of Exodus the newly freed children of Israel receive the Ten Commandments, establish a covenant with God, and become a holy nation – a distinctive, set apart people, committed to live as a model of justice and righteousness. From that moment at Sinai some three thousand years ago the history of the Jews has been a dialectical journey at times engaging and integrating and at other times distancing and separating from the dominant culture in which they lived. How much to take in of the wisdom and truths of the larger culture and how much to protect one’s own inheritance and traditions from outside influences and ideas? This balancing act of being members of the larger society while maintaining one’s particular identity is no less than the challenge of survival and continuity for any minority in a culture as powerful and compelling as America.

The beautiful prayer shawl for a female cantor created by Renee Goldin Fischman and the magnificently painted tambourine by Betsy Platkin Teutsch depicting women receiving and celebrating the Torah are quintessential products of this tension. Behind the creation of these two innovative religious works of art, which are used in contemporary worship, are countless arguments, divisive debates, and genuine soul searching within and across myriad Jewish communities.

5.14 TambourineHistorically, males exclusively served as cantors and wore the prayer shawl, and the Torah scroll was the province of men – women were prohibited from even touching the scroll. But in the 20th century as women’s rights expanded and feminism was increasingly accepted in the American political and cultural landscape, Jews, like all inheritors of traditional religions, wrestled with whether to embrace these new ideas. Would embracing the “foreign idea” of women’s equality betray or advance Judaism? Would permitting women to partake in previously prohibited rituals dilute or enhance the practice of Judaism? Some Jews worried that assimilating new ideas and practice would undermine Jewish life. But for the majority of American Jews, assimilation offered a means by which traditional Judaism would and could be investing with new strength and meaning.

The unique American experiment of unprecedented religious freedom and pluralism combined with the drive for the new and creative that is so much a part of the American ethos is the ground for a never-ending dance between adapting and resisting that all immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities engage in. Inevitably in this exquisite process there is loss but as these two ritual objects witness there is also the blessing of assimilation.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, the President of Clal, a sought after speaker, and blogger for The Huffington Post and the Washington Post’s “On Faith,” has been a guest on, NBC’s Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor (Fox), Frontline (PBS), and, among others. He is a graduate of Columbia University and received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. An eighth–generation rabbi, he has headed congregations in St. Louis, MO; Queens, NY; and Jerusalem, Israel and co¬founded the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Chicago.

Shoshanah II, tallit for a woman cantor
Renee Goldin Fischman, 1992
National Museum of American Jewish History
Contemporary Artifacts Purchase Fund

Betsy Platkin Teutsch
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Betsy Teutsch Studio

Letting Go trunk for sacred stories
MAY 12, 2013  MOTHER"S DAY
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover
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Motherhood is a process of letting go. Our children start as part of us, but from the time they are born they begin to separate, becoming themselves at a rate that can feel agonizingly slow to a mother rocking a screaming baby, but that in retrospect goes far too quickly. For many women—though not all—motherhood feels like a biological imperative. It is wanted.

In the first book of Samuel in the Bible, Hannah wanted a child so badly that she invented a new form of prayer, pleading with God silently and extemporaneously. She promised that if God would allow her a baby boy, she would dedicate him to God’s service, and that is what she did. When her son Samuel was weaned, she gave him up, sending him to serve in the House of God at Shiloh, after which she saw him once a year and brought him new clothing. How astonishing that she would be willing to give up her child, the child she had so longed for!

But this, too, is part of motherhood. Mothers kiss their children and let them go—to daycare, to school, to camp, to college, to their own families, and sometimes to whole new worlds. In Europe, Jewish mothers looking for a better life for their children kissed them and let them go, perhaps never to see them again. In the Museum is a 1940 letter written by Martha and Abraham Frankel to strangers in the United States who were taking in Martha and Abraham’s son, Heinz. Heinz (later Henry) was one of approximately 1,000 unaccompanied children brought to the US by a network of Jewish and Gentile organizations and volunteers through quiet operations designed to avoid backlash from isolationist and antisemitic forces. Children like Heinz were placed in foster homes or with relatives in the hope that they would eventually be reunited with their families. Martha writes, “I must not delay to thank you from the innermost recesses of my heart for your kindness and love which you have shown my child.” She was able to join her son in 1941, but her husband did not manage to leave Europe and died in Riga.

Along the wall of the third floor immigration gallery there is a quote from Marcus Ravage, a young immigrant: “At the moment of departure…[my mother] lost control of her feelings. As she embraced me for the last time her sobs became violent and father had to separate us. There was a despair in her way of clinging to me which I could not understand. I understand it now. I never saw her again.” Children cannot understand until later, perhaps when they are parents themselves, what it means for a mother to say goodbye to her child and let him or her go, whether for a while or forever.
On this Mother’s Day, we honor the love mothers have for their children: the love that moves them to bring those children into the world, to hold on to them tight, and to do whatever it takes to get them a better life, even when it means letting go of them forever.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover, of Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, is a proud alumna of the Academy for Jewish Religion and Gratz College; she received smicha (ordination) and her Master’s degree in Jewish Studies in May of 2011. Her undergraduate degree is from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Trunk, 1941
National Museum of American Jewish History
This trunk once belonged to Martha Frankel. It was brought to the United States by Martha’s brother, Arthur Einstein, and his family when they escaped Europe in 1941 aboard the SS Navemor. Mrs. Frankel traveled to America separately, reuniting with her son Heinz when she arrived.

A Community of Individuals 5.7 High holiday ticket
By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph D
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On the large wall on the 2nd floor as you cross the atrium there is an astonishing array of photos. Older people and young people, the famous and the unknown, men and women, converts and Jews from birth, people of all races, people of a variety of professions. Already on our journey though the history of American Jews, we are compelled to stop here and take notice. We are reminded that there are real people involved in the narratives of history.

It is a visual accounting of a community. The abstract concept of ‘a people’ is made concrete, and in doing so it is vibrant, challenging, familiar, and engaging. We look at these faces and we know who makes up this community.

There is a similar accounting of tribes in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar. Bamidbar means in the desert and this week’s portion comes as the people of Israel are wandering through the desert. Wandering can seem aimless and hopeless if one does not stop and notice the community that surrounds us. One might wonder if any individual is of particular import in a large community. The bible lists the names of the tribal leaders and then goes on to detail the members, name by name and by the numbers too. Place also mattered, every person had a name and a tribe, and every tribe was located in relation to the holy center. This was not an undefined mass. The community was ordered and in that order it was defined. This accounting was a reminder of the importance of each individual, that each male (the women were not included) member mattered. Not only were they seen by God, but they needed to be seen by each other as well.

Heading to High Holiday services in 1951, Mrs. Amelia Loeb of Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York, knew she mattered as well. For the most attended services of the year, the synagogue adhered to the common practice of handing out tickets to assure seating. Unlike their foremothers, Mrs. Amelia Loeb and the other women of the congregation were counted. She was identified by name. Loeb had her own ticket, with her own name, not that of her husband. She was a seat holder, guaranteed a place in the mass gathering. Likely as not, she and other members took the same seat year after year, so that like the tribes of Israel they could identify individuals by location as well as name. Like the other members of the community, she was important as an individual as well as part of the larger group.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for ethnic and cultural diversity in the global Jewish community. A graduate of Barnard College holding a doctorate from Yale University, Rabbi Ruth is the editor of Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.

Ticket for High Holiday services at Temple Israel, Lawrence, New York, 1951
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana

Ring in Freedom 5.3EvaBaenCard
By Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard
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The American Liberty Bell bears this inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” [Leviticus 25:10]. The United States stands for human freedom. Liberty means the freedom for each individual to choose how he or she would live life and pursue happiness. The American people have no master besides themselves.

The verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell is found in parshat Behar: “.…and you shall treat as kadosh [hallow/consecrate/set apart] the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim deror [release/liberty/freedom] throughout the land for [or ‘unto’] all its inhabitants.”
Every seven years a shemitah ,or year of rest, for the land was declared; harvested produce was shared and debts forgiven. Every seven cycles came a Yovel, a Jubilee, when most land returned to its original owners and all Hebrew slaves, or more accurately, all indentured servants, were released.

A servant/slave has a master. Although Jewish masters were required to treat their indentured servants well, as masters they retained decision-making power. As long as the work itself was not degrading, the servant had to work when, where, and how the master ordered. He was subject to the master’s will; he had no significant agency of his own. Liberation meant a return to personal agency and choice, being free to actively make and carry out plans that would lead to the satisfaction of one’s own desires, goals, and purposes.
Jewish immigrants to America sought liberation. They sought to be released from the European social and economic constraints created by poverty and prejudice. They looked forward to becoming their own masters. For many, the royal road to liberation was education. It meant acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to think for oneself, to choose what one really believed was valuable, and to successfully formulate and implement one’s own plans.

In 1913 Eva Baen left her parents in Russia and immigrated to America at age seventeen in search of an education. She actively pursued her dream by taking night classes at Kearney and later, Jefferson Evening Elementary Schools in Philadelphia, while working at a shirtwaist factory during the day. Her attendance card from Kearney is one of many she received as she advanced through night school. Eva Baen took the first step towards her own liberation by choosing to leave Russia and, in committing herself to educational pursuits, turned that dream into a reality.

Our verse from parashat Behar calls us to create a society in which we regularly reclaim our capacity to be our own masters—to free ourselves from incapacitating fears, illusions and distortions. Eva Baen’s card reminds us that education in its widest sense is an important part of that liberation.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the Director of Organizational Development at Clal, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and a practicing clinical and organizational psycologist in New York, holding PhDs in Psychology and Philosophy. Rabbi Blanchard has taught at Washington, Northwestern, and Loyola Universities, as well as the Drisha Institute for Women, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, and Fordham Law School. A guest of both Oprah Winfrey and Pope Benedict XVI, Rabbi Blanchard continues to be an active voice for Clal’s mission of religious pluralism and diversity, as a participant of the Center for Christian–Jewish Understanding. 

Attendance card of Eva Baen, Philadelphia, 1914-1915
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Clara K. Braslow in memory of her parents

Home for the Holidays? SS4.26.13
APRIL 26, 2013 EMOR
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover
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Holidays anchor us: to family, to home, to memory. They remind us of who we are and where we come from, providing an element of constancy even when other parts of our life change. Emor, which means “speak,” is a section of the Hebrew Bible from the book of Leviticus. It includes a list of when the Israelites, and subsequently, the Jews, were to celebrate the holidays throughout the year. In the centuries since the Bible was written, the Jewish holidays have been celebrated at these same dates on the Hebrew calendar, in different lands, in different ways, through the generations. Among the holidays listed in the Torah portion is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which has found its own expression in the United States.

The Museum’s collection includes Rosh Hashanah pop-up cards depicting Miss Columbia (later replaced with imagery of Lady Liberty) opening the gate to new immigrants. They were sent by immigrants in the US to family members still living in Europe.

What were the thoughts and feelings of a new immigrant sending these cards? Perhaps the approach of the holiday causes a stab of longing for home as she thinks of preparing a festive Rosh Hashanah meal with her mother, with whom she knows she will never share the holiday again.

For another immigrant, perhaps America did not turn out to be as he had hoped, he is struggling. The Rosh Hashanah card is an act of bravado, communicating, “No, this was the right decision, and I’m doing great.”

For still another, reveling in the freedom of the United States, feeling safe and invigorated by opportunity, the message was, “Let’s be together again for the holidays, but let’s do it here, in this exciting land!”

As we get older, our experience of holidays deepens and becomes more complicated as each year’s celebration adds a layer to the meaning of the day. Places at the table that were once full become empty, or we find ourselves in a completely different place, seeing simultaneously where we are and where we were in past years, on that day. Holidays anchor us and remind us of who we are, even when everything else has changed.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover, of Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, is a proud alumna of the Academy for Jewish Religion and Gratz College; she received smicha (ordination) and her Master’s degree in Jewish Studies in May of 2011. Her undergraduate degree is from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Rosh Hashanah card segment, 1909
Hebrew Publishing Co.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett
The Hebrew at the bottom of the card translates to “Open the gates of righteousness for me” on the right from Psalm 118:19 and “The gates opened for the new righteous to enter” on the left.

Promise of a New Startss4.20 image2
By Rabbi Yonah Berman
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For millions of immigrants and would-be immigrants around the world, America has long been synonymous with words like Freedom, Opportunity and Liberty. One can only imagine the elation felt by numerous of soon-to-be new Americans, as they were greeted by welcoming eyes of the Statue of Liberty as they sailed into New York Harbor. Arriving from every corner of the globe, men, women and children saw – and continue to see – the potential to build a better life for themselves and their families in the United States. To those escaping lives of ethnic, economic and religious oppression, Lady Liberty has long symbolized cornerstone values on which this country is built, themselves expressed thousands of years ago in the Bible and read in this week’s Torah portion: “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery.... You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.... You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” [Leviticus 19:13-15]

This creed was eloquently paralleled by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), in words now found on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (The New Colossus, 1883)

Emma Lazarus, a descendant of one of the first Jewish families in America, grew up in New York City, where she witnessed the arrival of countless new Americans. She spent time assisting Russian Jewish immigrants, an experience that influenced her advocacy work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and her writing. She wrote The New Colossus in 1883 to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Sixteen years after her death, the final lines of the poem were affixed to Lady Liberty’s pedestal, helping to turn the Statue into a symbol of welcoming to new immigrants.

As you stand here, imagine what it must have felt like to arrive in the New World; to have finally escaped from the Old World and its endless difficulties and to see, in America, a land of boundless potential.

Rabbi Yonah Berman is the Rabbi of Kadimah- Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA. He also teaches at the Jewish Community Day School in Boston. Rabbi Berman attended Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Before college he studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and then received his BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University. After graduation, he returned to Israel and served in the IDF in a front-line tank unit, where he was awarded for his performance during training.

Manuscript, The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus
Private Collection
Unauthorized use or duplication is forbidden

You can also find an image of Emma Lazarus in the family tree in our Establishing Communities gallery.

Comfort in a Time of Need ss4.17.13Songsforsailors and soldiers
By Rabbi Richard Hirsh
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How do we memorialize those who have died? How does a culture, a nation, a people create meaning out of loss and sanctification out of sacrifice? When are we served by silence, and when are we moved to speak?

The Torah portion Aharei Mot (“After the death…”) picks up a narrative that began in Leviticus 10 which recounts how the two sons of Aaron, the High Priest and Moses’ brother, perished upon trying to enter the Kadosh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary. Though the Sanctuary was a temporary construction while the Israelites’ were in the desert, entrance into this chamber was restricted to only the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Upon learning of his sons’ death the Torah tells us only: “and Aaron was silent” [Leviticus 10:3].

But death and loss, whether individual or communal, more often calls forth speech, not silence. And in the context of war, the words spoken take on a special urgency as well as poignancy.

Throughout the Museum we find reference to rabbis serving as chaplains in the military. Although Jews served in the army beginning with the Revolutionary War, the first Jewish chaplains were commissioned and served during the Civil War. Starting in 1917, the Jewish Welfare Board became responsible for enlisting Jewish chaplains and meeting the religious needs of Jewish soldiers stationed without a chaplain. The JWB published prayer books, Jewish calendars, and song books for solders, arranged for kosher food, and organized recreational activities for soldiers stationed at home and abroad.

Rabbinic chaplains brought the comfort of familiar rituals to Jewish soldiers with the words of liturgy and prayer. Sabbath services with candles and familiar melodies, Passover seders with matzah and haggadahs, and High Holiday shofar blowings helped to overcome the inevitable loneliness of holidays spent far from family and home.

As military chaplains are called upon to do, these clergymen were serving soldiers of all faiths and of none – ministering, consoling and praying, using words to bring comfort and wrest meaning from the brutality of war. Chaplains often had the sad task of writing to families to tell them of the death of their loved ones.

The Torah story of the silence of Aaron appears thus to be the exception, not the rule. Death and loss, especially as a consequence of service to the nation, calls for words of memorialization and prayer. Throughout the Museum, we see the stories of chaplains who, like their biblical ancestors, sought to make meaning. The words they spoke sanctified the lives of those whose personal stories are knit together with living in, and sometimes dying for, this new homeland that promised freedom such as Jews had never known.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He currently serves as co-chair of the Clergy Task Force on Domestic Violence of JWI (Jewish Women International), on the editorial board of Sh’ma magazine, and on the boards of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, and the National Council of Synagogues.

Songs for Soldiers and Sailors
New York: Jewish Welfare Board, 1918
National Museum of American Jewish History

Visit the Museum blog to learn more about Jewish soldiers’ Passover experiences during World War II.

Who’s the Patient Here?
April 13, 2013 TAZRIA–METZORA
By Rabbi Helaine Ettinger
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4.10SSWomenswarrecordHouses, just like people, fall ill according to the Book of Leviticus. This particular chapter includes a story of houses in which “plague breaks out” (Lev 14:43). What kind of strange phenomenon is this? Scientifically, it could be a mold or rot that spreads over the stones and mortar. Jewish commentators through the centuries have seen this “plague” as a sickness of the soul, a metaphor for the spiritual health of those living in it. The 16th century biblical commentator, Rabbi Moshe Alshich interpreted the infection of the house as a warning to society. The infection of stones and mortar were the physical symptoms of the need to redress moral misconduct in society.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the United States faced a mortal challenge, a war that threatened to rupture the nation. Throughout the conflict, Abraham Lincoln often referenced the bible in his speeches and writings, using the analogy of an “ailing house” as the basis for one of his most famous speeches:

“ ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.“
– Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858

Moral disease, as surely as bodily disease, worsens and spreads throughout a society if left unchecked. Lincoln saw slavery as a sickness in the soul of our nation. He expressed his uneasiness by comparing his beloved country to a house too weak to stand.

In a poignant and personal account, A Woman’s War Record, Septima M. Levy Collis described the pain of living through the Civil War in a household that was literally divided. Her book is on display in the Museum’s Civil War gallery. Charleston-born Septima Levy, the young bride of Union General Charles H. T. Collis had friends and family fighting on both sides of the conflict. “I never fully realized the fratricidal character of the conflict until I lost my idolized brother Dave of the Southern army one day, and was nursing my Northern husband back to life the next.” She noted both the destruction brought by the war and the first signs of healing. Recalling a time when she and her husband were stationed in Virginia, she noted:
“City Point became one vast hospital for suffering humanity. As far as the eye could reach… the plain was dotted with tents which were rapidly filled with wounded men, Northern and Southern, white and black without distinction.”

The scars of the Civil War remained part of American society for generations, and continue to figure prominently in our politics and culture. An ailing society slowly heals, as Levy Collis wrote, war “cost the lives of many dear ones, but this was the only loss. We are to-day one people – we might have been a dozen.” Our biblical ancestors would be pleased to know that we heeded their warning.

Rabbi Helaine Ettinger is a Reform Rabbi serving the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon in New Jersey. Co-President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network she is also a fellow with Rabbis Without Borders and a founding member of the collaborative adult educational program, Rimon.

A Woman’s War Record, 1861-1865
Septima Maria Levy Collis, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1897
National Museum of American Jewish History
Dedicated in honor of Lyn and George Ross by Gwen and Alan Goodman 

Food Matters SSLevys 
April 6, 2013 SHIMINI
By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
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“You are what you eat,” we often hear, but is that really true? Perhaps not entirely so, as demonstrated by the fact that most Americans are not walking burgers or slices of pizza. But there is, however, much wisdom to be found in appreciating the connection between what’s on our plates and what’s in our hearts.

Simply put, we eat our values. From biblical times to the present, and many times in between, as you experience in the halls of NMAJH, the connection between what we eat and the values we most deeply cherish, can be seen time and time again.

From a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden, to the code of permitted and prohibited animals found in Leviticus 11:1-47, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear: food matters. The food choices we make reflect who we are and who we hope to be.

For the ancient Israelites, and still central to traditional kosher laws today, that meant a code instructing people to eat in a way reminiscent of how the world was created in the Genesis story – land, sea, and sky creatures each distinct from the other – and each meal a reminder that humans, like God, are creators with the power to bring order and meaning to life.

ssfrypanWhat was true then has remained true through the ages. It’s why a simple frying pan used to prepare blintzes would be preserved through the generations – evoking not only the memory of cheese-filled crepes, but of the nurturing presence of the one who prepared and served them.

And as the iconic rye bread ads of a generation back reminded us, “you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” Meaning, among other things, the power of food to convey profound messages, knows no boundaries. A “Jewish food” can belong to anyone able to appreciate its qualities, just as other foods can become “Jewish foods” as they become a part of how Jews live their lives and celebrate their story.

Perhaps Franz Rosenzweig said it best when teaching that some day, a grandmother’s recipe for gefilte fish will be passed down with the same sense of tradition as formal commandments or customs. Why? Because at the end of the day, even if we are not defined entirely by what we eat, the foods we eat help us define who we are and who we hope to be.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by

Poster, Levy’s Rye Bread, ca. 1975 
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana
The Levy’s ad campaign created by the Doyle Dane Bernbach, Inc. agency
featured people of various nationalities enjoying a stereotypically Jewish bread.

Frying pan of Sarah Leavitt, Medford, Massachusetts, ca. 1910 
National Museum of American Jewish History
Gift of Pauline Levitsky in memory of her parents Benjamin and Sarah Leavitt
Sarah Leavitt used this frying pan, made by her husband, to cook blintzes.

What is Your Food Worth? is a two-year long conversation about food, ethics, sustainability, and eating Jewish, presented by Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, in partnership with the Gershman Y, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and Congregation Rodeph Shalom. Learn more at

museum_sacred_storiesLet My People Go 

March 25, 2013 PASSOVER

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
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“When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go… Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

Many Americans know this song as an African American spiritual, sung by slaves. It is a play on the biblical verses in the Exodus story of the Israelites leaving Egypt. For many American Jews, the song is traditionally sung at the Passover Seder.

“Let my people go” was also a rallying cry for the Soviet Jewry Movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. During this period, American Jews organized protests and worked tirelessly to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jews to leave. The Soviet regime forbade Jews from practicing their religion or customs,and often resorted to persecution and intimidation. What started as a grassroots student movement in 1964 soon took off as a national cause. By the 1970s the National Conference on Soviet Jewry worked to unify the many local and national organizations to better coordinate the Jewish community’s response. Protests and marches were held by Jews in cities across America. The personal stories of refuseniks (the name given to Jews who were refused visas to leave) shared at rallies and twinning programs that paired bar and bat mitzvah aged teens with Soviet Jewish teens made the issue personal and real for American Jews.

Many Philadelphians played a prominent role in the movement. Visitors to the core exhibition can see artifacts from individuals like Gwen Goodman, who went on trips to the Soviet Union to meet with Jews and to learn more about the situation. One such trip inspired Constance and Joseph Smukler to take a leading role in advocating for the release of refuseniks by speaking at synagogues and conferences, clandestine travel to the Soviet Union and by meeting with US officials.

The movement peaked on Freedom Sunday in December 1987 when nearly 250,000 people from across the nation gathered on the National Mall to protest on behalf of Soviet Jews. The march coincided with President Reagan‘s meeting with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Within a few years, Gorbachev opened the gates, and hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews immigrated to Israel and America.

Passover, with its theme of freedom is, not surprisingly, the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday in America. Many immigrant groups, including Jews, came to these shores to escape persecution. The slogan, “Let my People go!” crosses religious, racial, and socio-economic lines like no other. What better way to celebrate Passover in America then to continue to advocate on behalf of others, at home and abroad, and continue to speak out in favor of religious freedom. 

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, and holds a masters degree and ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 

Poster, Let My People Go, 1969
Illustrated by Dan Reisinger
National Museum of American Jewish History
Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana
Dan Reisinger (b. 1934) is an Israeli artist and graphic designer. Born in Yugoslavia, he survived the Holocaust hiding with a Serbian family. Reisinger’s Let My People Go is one of the first examples of his politically themed work. 

Find Yourself in Every Generation

By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

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What does it mean to be free? There are as many good answers as there are people who choose to answer the question, and none is more important than yours. As you enter the National Museum of American Jewish History you have the opportunity to answer that question for yourself while being inspired by two of the greatest freedom stories ever told.

What does it mean to build a nation which puts freedom and human dignity at the center of everything it does? That is the fundamental question which animated both the founding of this nation and of the Jewish people, and you need not be Jewish or even American, to appreciate the answers, especially as they have come together in the unfolding of American Jewish History. It’s a story that belongs to all people who enter this institution, not to mention that the idea that the story belongs to all of us, is as old as the exodus from Egypt recorded in the Hebrew Bible.

Each year, in a thousands year old tradition, as family and friends gather at the table to celebrate Passover and the first steps taken into freedom by those leaving bondage, people are invited to see themselves as if that journey is their own—that they themselves are slaves leaving Egypt. But is that possible? Can we really see ourselves as “those people”? We can when we realize that “they” are us.

We all want to be free, and we all have tight spots—the literal translation of the Hebrew word for Egypt—from which we want to escape. We all want to feel liberated to be the people we are meant to be—to see our dreams become reality, and our greatest aspirations for ourselves, our families, our nation and the world fulfilled.

As you wander these halls, see the ongoing story of making dreams come true, behold the daring of leaders who led the way, the bravery of those who persevered in the face of the challenges that inevitably arose, and the beauty of everyday people as they lived their lives in pursuit of freedom, dignity, success and happiness. They are us—wherever we are from, whatever our faith, ethnicity, or pretty much anything else. They are you.

Find yourself in the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL, has been ranked several years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” and recognized as one of our nation’s top “Preachers & Teachers,” by