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350 Years of American Jewry American Jewish Experience is As Authentic As Israel’s or Europe’s

September 28, 2004
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On the Jewish calendar, the fall is a time for prayer and personal reflection, and the spring for communal storytelling. The liturgy of the High Holidays urges us to turn inward, while the Passover Haggadah demands a public retelling of the exodus from Egypt and the birth of our people.

This new year brings the opportunity for a revisiting of our communal past that will extend from fall to spring. In 5765, the High Holidays coincide with the launch of festivities marking the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America.

Across the United States, communities are beginning the public retelling of our American Jewish heritage with fanfare and creativity. Music festivals, museum exhibitions, special services, film series, lectures and conferences will attest to the rich cultural life Jews have built in this country and honor our accomplishments as Jews and as Americans.

What do these 350 years mean to young American Jews, many of whom are coming of age with a strong sense of identity as Americans but little connection to their Jewish roots? We must make sure that our commemorations include and address the next generation, who will help determine the direction of Jewish life in America in the coming years.

In 1838, Rebecca Gratz founded the Hebrew Sunday School Society in Philadelphia, the first of its kind, because she perceived that only through education in their heritage could young American Jews make their “wilderness bloom.”

Gratz’s insight is no less true today. The 350th anniversary presents us with an important opportunity to expand our definition of Jewish heritage to include the colorful and impressive history of our experiences in America.

As Jews, we mine our ancient texts and stories week after week, year after year, seeking meaning and instruction. When it comes to our more recent communal past, however, we tend to be selective in our educational priorities, and American Jewish history often gets short shrift. It falls victim to the perception that this chapter of our history is not a core part of our heritage. Its texts, after all, are not the classical texts — such as the Talmud and rabbinic codes — around which much of Jewish religious and intellectual life is based.

American Jewish history also lacks the perceived authenticity and nostalgic appeal of Jewish life in the shtetls and yeshivas of Eastern Europe or the pioneering struggle to create the State of Israel.

One of the lessons of this 350th anniversary is that American Jewish history belongs in the classroom because this history matters. For most American Jews, the American piece of their historical narrative is the most recent, but certainly not the least influential.

America is not a way station for most Jews. We are here to stay, and the forms of Jewish life we have developed in these 350 years are among the most creative in the history of our people. American Jewish history demonstrates to young people that they can live rich and authentic lives as Americans and as Jews.

American Jewish history expands our sense of what is possible. By studying the story of the first American Jewish community in New Amsterdam in 1654 and its successful fight to overturn Gov. Peter Stuyvesant’s decree that Jews were not welcome, kids learn about the power of our community to promote freedom in this land.

Girls develop a broader range of dreams and ambitions when they learn about the perseverance of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Gertrude Elion, who pursued her interest in science even when employers told her she would be a “distracting influence” in the laboratory, or about the limitless energy of Olympic gold medalist Bobbie Rosenfeld, who went directly from her first track victory in the Canadian National Exhibition in 1923 to playing in — and winning — her softball team’s championship game.

American Jewish history provides role models and inspiration, as well as moral and spiritual lessons. The next generation of American Jews deserves the right to be inspired by the indefatigable activism and humor of the late New York Rep. Bella Abzug, who championed everyone’s right to equality and freedom and did it in her own style — with brashness and her signature hats.

As a young lawyer fighting an important civil rights case in the South, Abzug spent a night — alone and pregnant — in a bus station bathroom because no hotel would give her a room, and the next day argued the case for six hours before Mississippi’s governor. If we forget such challenges and her courage in facing them, we lose one of the powerful ethical teachings in American Jewish history.

History is a central building block of identity, helping us understand where we have come from and what we are capable of. If the American Jewish community takes its history seriously in this anniversary year, it must bring it into the classroom so that students can be transformed by its valuable lessons and create the next chapter of our living history.

(Judith Rosenbaum is director of education at the Jewish Women’s Archive ( and editor of the archive’s new American Jewish history curriculum, “Making Our Wilderness Bloom: 350 Years of Extraordinary Jewish Women in America.”)

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