Friday, December 17, 2010

The (Jewish) Father of Federal Indian Law

We finished our 50th Anniversary Salon Series on a high note December 1, when Dalia Tsuk Mitchell told the story of Felix Cohen, the "Father of Federal Indian Law" (1907-1953).

The program was a collaboration between the Society and the Interior Museum, and took place at the Department of the Interior's magnificent New Deal-era auditorium. We learned about the evolution of Cohen's views on legal pluralism and the place of Native Americans and other minority groups in the United States, and how Cohen's experiences as a Jewish American shaped those views. Cohen is most known for the Handbook of Federal Indian Law, still the standard source in its field today.

A diverse group came out on a cold, cloudy day--including many Interior Department employees, a group from Temple Beth Ami, other people from our and the Interior Museum's mailing lists, and even a man who once worked with Cohen.

At the end of the talk, Professor Mitchell read a famous line that pretty much sums up Cohen's philosophy:

"The Indian plays much the same role in our American society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith."

Special thanks to Diana Ziegler (pictured at left, with me and Professor Mitchell) from the Interior Museum for making this program possible.

The Interior Museum recorded the lecture and will be placing an audio file online. Stay tuned for a link!

Check out Professor Mitchell's award-winning biography to learn more.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Annual Meeting (or, JHSGW, you don't look a day over 50!)

On June 9, 1960, ten Jewish Washingtonians met in a living room to discuss founding a historical society that would help preserve the story of Jewish life in Washington. Each year since, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has held an annual meeting, an open session of the executive board. This year’s annual meeting, convened on November 14, was a particularly special one, as we celebrated our 50th anniversary.

The Society used the meeting, and the lovely space at Congregation Adas Israel, as an opportunity to showcase our progress over the past fifty years to the hundred and fifty members and guests who attended. Through banners, posters, photo albums, and objects, we looked back at some of our favorite exhibitions, guest speakers, and programs, as well as looked ahead at the impending synagogue move and where the Society is headed in its next fifty years. I certainly learned a lot in researching and reading the materials, and, judging by the lively conversation that followed the meeting, many of our guests were intrigued as well.

We were fortunate this year to be joined by Marvin Kalb (pictured at right), host of The Kalb Report and the last newsman hired by the incomparable
Edward R. Murrow. In his keynote address, Kalb discussed the changes he’s seen in the Washington, DC area and in the journalism profession in the last fifty years. Most notably to his eye, the profession has been diverted from a focus on reporting news with honesty and respect to a focus on taking sides and being the first to break a story.

During the board meeting portion of the afternoon’s festivities, we did take care of some necessary business, including voting on by-laws about the size of the board and term limits for the board president. We also elected a new slate of board members, appointed honorary directors, and bid a fond farewell to the departing members of the board.
Following the official proceedings, all in attendance partook of a delectable spread, including a giant, amply-frosted cake, which I had the joyous—and messy—task of slicing and serving. (For the 51st, I’ll remember to bring an apron!)

We look forward to seeing you at next year’s meeting—and to sharing the Society’s next fifty years with you!

December's Object of the Month

JHSGW 50th anniversary logoTo honor our 50th anniversary, we invite you to peek into our archives each month. This month, we commemorate Hanukkah and the Soviet Jewry Movement.

From the Archives...
Soviet Jewry vigil photograph

Archives Record
Object #: 2009.30.4
Donor: Ida Jervis
Description: Photograph of a group from Arlington Fairfax Jewish Congregation celebrating Hanukkah at the daily vigil for Soviet Jewry, 1973. Photograph by Ida Jervis.

Background: In 1970, protesting on behalf of Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union, Washington Jews started a daily vigil across the street from the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street, NW. Local synagogues and Jewish organizations were assigned specific days to ensure daily attendance. The vigil was maintained until 1991 when Soviet policies began changing and Jews were permitted to emigrate.

The vigil was the most acclaimed of Washington’s Soviet Jewry activities. The Soviet Jewry movement (c. 1963-1991) was a worldwide effort to free Soviet Jews, who were unable to emigrate or practice Judaism without persecution or discrimination. Across the United States, grassroots groups sprang up to work on behalf of these disenfranchised people. Washington’s Jewish community organized and participated in rallies, demonstrations, and other protest activities.

Washington-area activists came together again a few years ago when they partnered with the Jewish Historical Society to discuss how to ensure the community’s contribution to the Soviet Jewry movement would be documented for posterity. The first meeting resulted in a new collection in the Society’s archives of more than 20 written or recorded memoirs of movement activists, more than 50 photographs, political buttons (such as the one seen at left), t-shirts, organizational records, and Prisoner of Conscience bracelets.

On December 10, 2010, the community gathered across the street from the former site of Soviet Embassy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the start of the daily vigil. This event kicked off the beginning of a Society project, which includes creating a new exhibition and public programs to highlight the efforts of the local community on behalf of the Soviet Jews.

For more information about this new project or to donate archival material, contact Claire Uziel at 202 789 0900 or
To contribute to the new exhibition and public programs:
  • click here and enter "Soviet Jewry" in the Designation box
  • send a check (write “Soviet Jewry” in the note) to JHSGW, PO Box 791104, Baltimore, MD 21279-1104
  • call our office at (202) 789-0900 and charge your contribution to your credit card

Friday, December 10, 2010

Soviet Jewry vigil commemoration

Today was one of the coldest days of the year. Yet rarely have I felt so much warmth--even while standing outside for an hour.

Forty years ago today--on Human Rights Day, 1970--a small group of activists began a vigil outside the Soviet embassy on 16th Street, NW. They gathered that day to protest verdicts of treason, and subsequent death sentences, against Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union. For the next 20-plus years, they kept their vigil every day, rain, snow, or shine, hot or cold, until the Soviet Union finally allowed Jews to practice their faith freely and to leave the country.

Today, many who had kept that vigil all those years, plus several others, including some of the vigil's beneficiaries--around 125 people in all--gathered again as part of the Society's project to document the Soviet Jewry movement here in Washington.

Much has, of course, changed. The embassy across the street now flies the Russian tricolor instead of the Soviet hammer-and-sickle. The building that hosted the vigil then belonged to the International Union of Electrical Workers. It now belongs to the National Council of La Raza--which was gracious enough to host today's commemoration.

Several speakers who had participated in the vigil talked about their experiences today, including Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Norman Goldstein of the Society's Soviet Jewry project committee, and Pastor John Steinbruck of Luther Place Memorial Church. The president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguia, noted similarities between the Soviet Jewry movement and struggles for human rights now. A refusenik who had moved to Washington spoke about what the movement meant to him.

As someone who was 11 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, I stood there in awe at these activists' persistence, and their willingness to take a stand for people many of them didn't know. It made me all the more excited to work on the Society's project to document this movement. Already many of the activists have recorded their own oral histories.

Stay tuned--in the next couple of years, we plan to create an exhibition and a Web site and/or publication. Click here to contribute to the project. If you'd like to receive updates or want to know more, please get in touch!