I am currently participating in a weekly book discussion group sponsored by Peace Lutheran Church that is focusing on Dr. Jonathan Sarna's watershed work, AMERICAN JUDAISM. Dr. Sarna, who was one of my professors in rabbinic school in classes on Jews in America, did not simply chronicle the stories of Jews living in our country in his book. He explored the development of Judaism in the context of American Jewish communities. Beginning with the first settlements on the east coast prior to the Revolutionary War, he outlined the processes by which Jews banded together in congregations. Jewish life began in American cities with one synagogue as the gathering place for meeting and worship. Eventually, due to differences in worship preferences and countries of origin, new congregations formed. The original model of a one-synagogue community turned into each city's Jews being organized into a community of synagogues. That is not to mention the secular organizations, like B'nai B'rith, that were founded as well to add a new dimension to Jewish society. And there were many Jews who lived far from those larger centers of Jewish life, seeking to preserve their faith and tradition against all odds in isolated towns and rural areas.
What impresses me about the first two hundred years of open Jewish settlement in North America, going through the time of the Civil War, is that it happened at all. The Jews who left Brazil to flee the inquisition in 1654 and arrived in September of that year in New Amsterdam did so at great risk and were almost expelled as soon as they came. With the support and insistence of Jews in Amsterdam who were prominent investors in the Dutch West India Company, those 23 Jews were allowed to remain.
And many more came. It may not seem like the 200,000 Jews who lived in the United States in 1865 represented such a significant sub-community of the United States. Through their occupations, their leadership in local communities, and by raising their voices on their own behalf and on national issues of the day, they made their presence known. There were disagreements in the Jewish community going back to whether or not to support the revolution and on attitudes towards slavery. In the Civil War, there were members of the same extended family who fought on opposing sides of that conflict.
What held them together? Likely, it was their sense of being different and their desire to preserve something of their heritage, even if they did not consider themselves religious. It was their thirst for freedom, knowing that, in the United States, they could practice Judaism as much or as little as they wanted while still identifying as Jews. More importantly, though, freedom meant that they could be considered full citizens. The prejudice they faced in this country, such as laws that did not allow them to serve in public office for a time in some states, did not stop them from taking courageous stands to insist on equal rights to which they were entitled in this land of liberty.
As we read about the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds in this week's Torah portion, I think about the long history of Jews taking uncertain steps towards freedom from oppression. We hear the voices of the Israelites doubting the miracle that was about to happen to them, but they moved forward, knowing that walking with purpose on the dry ground between the waters would be better than allowing themselves to be captured by the approaching Egyptian army.
The midrash about Nachshon Ben Aminadav and the parting of the sea offers a metaphor for Jewish life throughout the centuries. The rabbis said that the waters would not have parted until someone from among the Israelite people was willing to take first steps into the water. Nachshon did just that. In another interpretation, the rabbis imagined the people walking in the water until it reached their necks. At that point, they had shown themselves to be brave enough to risk their own lives for the cause of their own freedom. God saw that they were ready for a miracle. The waters parted, they walked across, and they experienced their first taste of liberty as individuals and as a people.
In the coming weeks, the book discussion group on American Judaism will move into conversations on the chapters that outline the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia who arrived here between 1881 and 1921. Some of us can trace our family history to that wave of movement. They came for new opportunities in this Golden Land, but they also came to escape the hatred and prejudice back home that might have otherwise cost them their lives. It was not easy for them to move, for sure, but they did. They believed that life in America would offer them something better, not only for them, but for future generations.
And so, as for me, I thank Wolf and Pearl Glazer, who arrived in the United States in 1892, and Mendel and Anna Karol, who came by 1905, for being like the Israelites crossing the sea. I can't imagine what it was like to create a new life in a strange place, but I know that they had the courage to do it.
And now, I, as their grandchild, and all of us, as part of the community they helped to build and sustain, continue to attempt to walk, in some way, in their shoes, to preserve the freedom that they craved, to uphold the values of the Judaism and Jewish culture that they and their ancestors had carried with them for centuries.
Like the Israelites, and like their descendants, the Jews who bravely came to this country for a better life, may we continue to live the values articulated by the prophet Micah and often quoted by the members of the founding generation of our country: that we will do justly, that we will love performing acts of kindness and mercy, and that we will walk humbly and courageously with God.
So may we do, always.
In the photo: Joseph and Ruth Karol, standing on their
wedding day, August 31, 1941.
Seated: Anna and Mendel Karol and Pearl Glazer.