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Throw an Open Party for U.S. Jewry’s 350th

As communal leaders gear up to bring next year’s celebration of American Jewry’s 350th anniversary to a community or organization near you in 2004, it seems appropriate to consider the sensitivities of this big prospective birthday party.

On September 9, more than 100 Jewish professionals, lay leaders and academics gathered at New York’s Center for Jewish History to inaugurate “Celebrate 350,” the 350th anniversary celebration of collective American-Jewish life. Celebration organizers announced their intent to stimulate, promote, encourage and facilitate the vast range of themes that they expect to emerge from hundreds of Jewish organizations and communities throughout the country.

The day’s speeches and discussions all pointed toward generating a celebration that could leave a legacy commensurate with the vitality and potential of today’s American-Jewish community. They also suggested the many challenges that lie ahead in this effort.

Those assembled were asked to look back both at the 1654 arrival of “twenty-three souls, big as well as little” on the docks of New Amsterdam and the communal commemorations of the 250th and 300th anniversaries in 1905 and 1954-55, respectively. Organizers emphasized the importance of building upon that commemorative tradition to find a celebratory vocabulary that holds “meaning for the world in which we live.”

It is likely that this vocabulary will be informed by the contentiousness over American values, power and pride that are infusing the current political moment and next year’s presidential election. This context for the yearlong celebration’s official launch in September 2004 will shape and complicate anniversary attempts to capture definitively the meaning and lessons of American Jewish identity.

Speakers at last week’s event pointed out that the story of Jews in America is one of American promise, of religious liberty, of what Jews have given to America and what America has given to Jews, and of how Judaism and Jewish life have been transformed by freedom. All of these messages could have been lifted straight from the 1954 celebration. But undoubtedly the morals of the American Jewish story will not prove to be so straightforward this time around.

As New York University’s Hasia Diner noted to the group’s academic subcommittee, Celebrate 350 language describing “the haven” that this nation “has been for us and all other Americans” could prove offensive to many. Although this sort of claim passed almost without objection in both 1905 and 1954, today we can no longer ignore the historical fact that millions arrived on these shores not in search of freedom but in the manacles of slavery. Celebrants in 2004 will have to be more circumspect in attuning their “celebration” to the complex realities of the history of American freedom.

Current organizers hope to distinguish the upcoming event from earlier celebrations through a pronounced emphasis on the diversity of the American Jewish community. But it is worth remembering that the same commitment also marked 1954 efforts to create a governing committee “as broad and diversified as the American Jewish community itself” — and the last celebration nonetheless excluded those whom organizers associated with communist tendencies. While 350th organizers presumably will not have to confront divisions as stark as those that grew out of the Cold War, they cannot simply assume that we have outgrown exclusions of the past.

The 1954-1955 celebration — with its prominent theme of “Man’s Opportunities and Responsibilities Under Freedom” — almost systematically left women out of its narrative of the American Jewish past. Still, the very first meeting of the tercentenary celebration’s steering committee in June 1952 included Mrs. Irving M. Engel, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, who proved to be one of the committee’s most outspoken and active members.

At this month’s inaugural event, a widespread murmur of astonishment greeted the reading of an all-male list of those serving on the new organization’s steering committee. Fortunately, the audience was responding to an outdated list; Celebrate 350 organizers had redressed the imbalance by appointing a number of women to the committee. In addition, a talk emphasizing “a focus on Jewish women” was included in the opening program. Still, attention and care will be required to ensure the meaningful inclusion of women and other groups left out of previous celebrations and narratives.

Celebrate 350 and today’s American Jewish community have the opportunity and challenge of, quite literally, rewriting history. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to tell a different story.

Karla Goldman, historian in residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive, is author of “Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism.”

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