Sisterhood Blog

JWA Spotlights Jewish Women's Activism

By Sarah Seltzer

Gus Freedman/Jewish Women's Archive
Sam Wood, Marilyn Heiss, and Alana Alpert study primary sources at the JWA.

Like all large groups of people, American Jews are complex and irreducible despite some aspects of shared culture. Recently, the Jewish Women’s Archive made an interesting choice to focus a new curriculum on Jewish involvement in the labor and civil rights movements — without cheerleading or focusing solely on women’s involvement — thereby shining a probing light on that very complexity.

Called “Living the Legacy,” the curriculum uses primary sources to paint a multifaceted portrait of Jewish activism from the roots to the height of the labor and civil rights movements, right up through today.

In other curricula on social justice, “there was little engagement with the history of American Jewish involvement in social justice movements, except to celebrate it in a fairly superficial way — ‘Jews were at the forefront of all social justice movements in American history — Yay, Jews!,’” JWA’s Director of Public History Dr. Judith Rosenbaum told me in an email exchange. “We felt that this loses much of what’s complex and interesting about Jews and social justice.”

Rosenbaum highlights accounts that complicate the oft-told tale of Jewish activism: Southern Jews who resisted civil rights because it “threatened their own precarious acceptance,” as well as those Jews who got involved in organizing not because of Jewish values but rather in opposition to their own Jewish communities which they perceived as conformist or materialist.

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