Documensch: August 2023

Hello! Welcome to the August issue of the Documensch Newsletter. This month we go “back to school” and look at the Berman Archive’s many holdings exploring Jewish education. We also look at the past and present of Jewish community service, and the Jewish response to the death penalty in light of the Tree of Life mass murderer’s recent death sentence.

We hope you’re inspired by the ways the past, as gleaned through our holdings, can inform contemporary conversations in the American Jewish world. Join us for more of this kind of dialogue. We’re hosting our first public event in October on Jewish Media in America!

Don’t hesitate to reach out with feedback, articles we should consider sharing, or documents we should consider archiving. We can be reached at

Thanks for reading,

Ari Y Kelman, Director, Berman Archive

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Back to School

The fact that Rosh Hashanah coincides with the beginning of school has always made for a doubly-significant new year for many North American Jewish families. As Jewish communities prepare to enter the 10 Days of Repentance or scramble to find extra High Holiday tickets, folks are also filling new backpacks with new gear, lacing up new shoes, and sporting new hairdos. In the midst of all this newness, though, the Berman Archive offers a look back at how American Jewish communities thought about starting two new years at once.

In 1966 Walter Ackerman argued in the Journal of Jewish Education for a greater continuity between summer camps and the academic school year. Predicting what has become common knowledge in Jewish educational circles, Ackerman argued for bringing schools and camps into closer contact to create a seamless annual cycle of educational programming. 

Students are not the only ones starting at the beginning of the school year. New teachers are starting their careers, too. This 2010 study tracks the experiences of new teachers in Jewish day schools. 

Of course, even as people are heading back to school, many are wondering what they’ll do when they graduate. The Bureau of Jewish Social Research posed this question to Jewish students in 1921 to find out their professional aspirations.  

How have Jewish Federations funded Jewish schools?  Leora Isaacs examined this phenomenon in 1994. 

Here’s Eugene Borowitz weighing in on the problems of Jewish Educational Philosophy in the 1960s. 

Do you want to know about the state of jewish education in the US in 1956?  Look no further. How about the situation in 1980?  We got you right here. How about a survey of first-year Jewish college students in 1970?  The Berman Archive has that, too. 

Jews Fighting Hunger

This month, the hunger fighting organization Rachel’s Table—a program of the Jewish Federation of Massachusetts for 30 years—completed the process of becoming its own independent agency. This transition will be a net benefit for the communities it serves, allowing them to deliver more food to folks in need each week.

American Jewish organizations have a long tradition of helping those in need, Jews and gentiles alike. The Berman Archive holds a report from the 1925 issue of the The Jewish Social Service Quarterly reporting on the positive outcomes from providing supplemental income and food to families as a viable alternative to removing the child who exhibits malnutrition.

The money and support greatly increased the health, well-being, and self-sufficiency of the participating families. A heartening outcome and a peek into the ways the American Jewish communities a century ago justified its service and support for its neediest members. 

The Berman Archive also has Ann Wolfe’s classic 1971 article “The Invisible Jewish Poor,” a sharp analysis of Jewish class politics and attitudes.  Highlighting the needs of elderly and Orthodox Jews, Wolfe also offers an insightful critique of Jewish communal politics and preferences”

In summarizing the problem of the Jewish poor—estimated at 700,000 to 800,000 in the United States—we must make the point that their problems are common to all poor, but that there are problems peculiar to Jews, problems in inter-group relations, problems related to a Jewish identity which exist in a society whose image of the Jew is not altogether accurate, an image which the Jewish community persists in perpetuating. The problems include poor housing, inadequate medical care, neighborhoods that are undesirable in terms of emotional and physical security and outside the Jewish cultural mainstream.

Tree of Life and the Death Penalty 

On October 8, 2017, a gunman murdered 11 worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The perpetrator of the worst antisemitic attack in US History was sentenced to death by a jury this month. While the trial’s conclusion provided a sense of relief for some of  the victims’ families and the Pittsburgh Jewish community, it renewed the American Jewish discussion about capital punishment.

As the NY Times reported, congregants who were there that horrific day had “never come to a consensus about whether a death sentence would be a just outcome. But many had grown to appreciate the trial itself.”

David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh law school who worked with the families of the victims through the trial told JTA, “Even though the community is not of one mind… We are united in wanting this horrible thing to go right and be over and to say we did our best to support those who have been injured.”

Other Jewish voices were more critical of the death sentence, including Cantor Michael Zoosman, co-founder of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty who spoke with Democracy Now! about the issue, saying, “For ‘never again’ to have any meaning, it must also mean never again to state-sponsored murder of defenseless prisoners who are otherwise no longer a threat, safely behind bars. This is a lesson that 21st century Judaism should share with the world.”

Ikar, the progressive Los Angeles congregation headed by Rabbi Sharon Brous released an impassioned statement criticizing the death sentence, saying, “Even as we cry out against the poison of antisemitism and white supremacy, paired with easy access to military-grade weapons and an ecosystem of hate that fuels the worst in us, we must affirm that there is no justice in answering violence with more violence.”

American Jewish debates about the death penalty aren’t new. This month and in past years, discussion of state murder often conjures the Holocaust as the ultimate object lesson in the horrors of capital punishment. The Berman Archive holds some of this debate, particularly in the 2002 issue of Sh’ma dedicated to the topic. In “Abolishing the Death Penalty,” Daniel Sokatch argues that the death penalty in America cannot be reconciled with Jewish values and tradition. 

Shmuel Jablon, in the same issue of Sh’ma, discusses the death penalty from the perspective of halacha and Rabbinic sources, arguing that Jewish law sanctions capital punishment as part of participating in a criminal justice system that aims to protect innocents.

Lawrence Rubin provides context for the discussion showing that national Jewish organizations and the Jewish grassroots differ sharply in their attitudes toward capital punishment. Jewish organizations have consistently spoken out against the death penalty, whereas American Jews, like Americans generally, have regularly supported it. These tensions have persisted 20-years on, unfortunately with a new ghastly object lesson in the form of an antisemetic mass murder.

The Berman Archive will host its first event at Stanford on October 11. Jewish Currents and the Forward are two of the oldest and most influential Jewish publications in the US. We welcome their respective editors to participate in a wide-ranging discussion on the state of American Jewish media. We’ll discuss ways each publication balances uniquely Jewish perspectives in a medium beholden to the impartiality of journalistic ethics, the pitfalls and power of public opinion writing, and the density of intellectual and historical discourse. Details and RSVP. 


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