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American Jewish Past and Future Honored in Anniversary Celebrations

September 8, 2005
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Standing in front of a glass wall panel documenting the life of Joseph Shubow, a Jewish chaplain during World War II, Steven Cohen says he appreciates the panorama of Jewish life on display. “We’re lucky our ancestors came here,” says Cohen, a librarian at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, while visiting the Center for Jewish History in New York City. “It makes you realize the sacrifices they experienced.”

“Greetings from Home: 350 Years of American Jewish Life” which runs through Sept. 15, features more than 200 objects documenting the American Jewish experience, which began in 1654 when 23 Jews from Recife, Brazil, came to New Amsterdam — now New York — to escape persecution.

Items in the exhibit are diverse and rare, ranging from a Torah scroll written in 1730 and used at New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel to a model of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., America’s oldest Jewish house of worship, which was built in 1763.

Presented by the American Jewish Historical Society in conjunction with the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Sephardi Foundation, the exhibit comes near the end of a full year of national festivities celebrating American Jewry’s 350th anniversary.

The year’s events have included public lectures; musical, film and theatrical presentations; walking tours of American Jewish landmarks; and a special exhibit and ceremony at the Library of Congress.

National celebrations of the anniversary have been coordinated by Celebrate 350, an umbrella group encompassing more than 200 Jewish organizations that aims to provide resources and encouragement for celebrations of the anniversary in individual communities.

According to Alice Herman, executive director of Celebrate 350, the festivities were designed to celebrate America itself as much Jewish contributions to it.

“The bedrock values of this country — supporting diversity, freedom and justice for all — have enabled the Jewish community to thrive,” she says.

Events have taken place in all 50 states, with many more still scheduled throughout September.

Congress also has officially formed the Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History, which comprises the AJHS, the American Jewish Archives, the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration.

In perhaps the celebrations’ biggest coup, President Bush and former New York City Mayor Edward Koch are scheduled to keynote the national dinner of Celebrate 350 in Washington on Sept. 14. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel also is expected to participate.

Celebrate 350 has encouraged Jewish unity as well. In late June, the group released a proclamation supporting the anniversary signed by representatives of Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and Orthodox rabbinical associations.

New educational initiatives aimed at promoting knowledge of American Jewish history also constituted a key element of the past year. Celebrate 350 distributed suggested curricula and reading lists to hundreds of Jewish day schools across the United States and produced a set of 15 posters dramatizing key events and figures in American Jewish history. More than 1,000 copies of the poster set were given to educational institutions, including several non-Jewish public schools.

In another high-profile move, Celebrate 350 commissioned the Paul Taylor Dance Company to compose a new performance that commemorates the anniversary. The traveling performance has enjoyed success throughout the country.

“As Jews, we tend to weave our sense of identity out of our history,” says Robert Rifkind, chairman of Celebrate 350. The anniversary “has generated a sense of awareness that we have a history” in America.

Knowledge of that history was facilitated by the publication of several new books on American Jewish history, including “American Judaism: A History” by Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna.

According to Sarna, a member of JTA’s board of directors, the book has sold more than 20,000 copies, an unusually high number for an academic work.

Sarna says many American Jews initially responded to the announcement of the anniversary with surprise, which he says stemmed from widespread ignorance that Jews have a centuries-long presence in the United States.

“We’ve done a rather poor job of educating in American Jewish history,” Sarna says.

Herman agrees: “So many people have said that until the celebration they had no idea that the Jewish community in America has dated back to 1654.”

For Sarna, such knowledge is critical.

“If we’re going to have a Jewish future, we need young Jews who know about their past,” he says.

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