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5 Questions for...Bernie Michael, President and CEO, Center for Jewish History

February 05, 2020

"Never forget."

For Holocaust survivors who gathered on Monday in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp, the horrors of World War II will never be forgotten. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles — at Monday’s ceremony, there were two hundred survivors in attendance, compared to the fifteen hundred who attended ceremonies marking the sixtieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 1945 — and with anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews once again capturing headlines in Europe and the United States, the two-word admonition has assumed fresh meaning and significance.

At the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the past, five thousand years of the Jewish past, is very much alive. Established twenty years ago and celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2020, the center is a place where scholars, researchers, graduate fellows, high school students, and others gather to do research, attend seminars and symposia, and celebrate the remarkable achievements of the Jewish people.

PND recently spoke with Bernie Michael, the center’s president and CEO, about the organization’s mission and collections, history as story, and the reasons why he remains an optimist.

Headshot_bernie_michaelPhilanthropy News Digest: Tell us about the Center for Jewish History. When was it established, what is its mission, and what does it do to advance that mission?

Bernie Michael: The Center for Jewish History is located in Manhattan on 16th Street off of Fifth Avenue. We are home to five partner organizations — the American Jewish Historical Society, which was established in the 1890s to foster an appreciation of American Jewish heritage and which has a huge archive of materials relating to American Jewish history; the American Sephardi Federation, which preserves and promotes the history, traditions, and culture of Jews from Sephardic lands; the Leo Baeck Institute, a research library and archive focused on the history of German-speaking Jews; the Yeshiva University Museum, which, unlike our other partners, is more of a traditional museum in the sense that it has artworks and three-dimensional objects; and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was established in the 1920s and focuses on the history and culture of Eastern European Jews and Yiddish-speaking people.

The center brings all these organizations together under one roof, and we also have our own archives and mount our own exhibitions and offer our own programming. It's a place, really, for people to learn about the history of the Jewish people and all of its many different aspects.

PND: For a lot of Americans, history is little more than a dry recitation of dates, names, and long-forgotten events. What are they missing?

BM: History starts with dates and names and facts, and making sure all that is verified and correct is important. But what's really important about history is that it tells a story, and it's the job of historians to bring those stories to life. The ideas that make history important are almost always animated by individuals, and the individuals that history remembers usually are embedded in a fascinating story. Historians take those stories and connect them to the present. That's what we do here at the center. How do all those stories in our archives reflect who we are today, and what can they tell us about where we might be headed?

PND: Does the center have a crown jewel?

BM: That’s a tough one. We have five miles of archival material on site in fifty different languages going back some five thousand years. To single out any part of those archives above the others would be difficult, if not impossible. But, you know, at different times, different pieces in our collections speak to me, and I think that says about as much about the collections as it does about me, and where I am in my life, and where we are in the world.

Right now, the thing that is in my mind a lot is also one of the more important objects in our collections, which is an original, handwritten copy of the poem "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus. In it, Lazarus champions the idea of America as a refuge for the downtrodden with her famous line "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." These days, understanding the history of immigration in this country is important to understanding who we are as a nation and how we got here.

PND: In October, we marked the first anniversary of the horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a painful reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well, here in the United States and in many other countries. To what do you attribute that troubling development?

BM: Well, it is a troubling development, and many people see a connection between the reemergence of anti-Semitism and the illiberal pushback against democracies happening around the world. I agree with them and think both are part of the same phenomenon. It’s a characteristic of anti-Semitism that it tries to frame the Jew as "the Other," a person who is outside the "nation," who doesn't belong. And, of course, democracy is about inclusion, minority rights, extending the franchise, and making sure all people are included and protected. In contrast, wherever illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment have been embraced, we also see a rise in anti-Semitism.

It's an important connection to make, because until we have a clear understanding of the root causes of anti-Semitism — and there are many — we can't begin to know how to address it and try to put a stop it. The importance of this can't be overestimated, and what we as a center for Jewish history can do is, first and foremost, try and look at the problem and understand it for what it is. Some people think the problem is nothing more than people not understanding who Jews are, what their history is, and how they've been demonized. I'm not sure that's true, because if it were true then our job would simply be to get the facts about Jews and Jewish life out there. But I don't know if that's really the solution. I think the problem has got to be attacked on many fronts, not least of which is looking at what the remedies for anti-Semitism might be. What we do here is provide a place for discussion — a place for politicians, scholars, researchers, archivists to look at how anti-Semitism has waxed and waned over the decades and try and understand where things stand in the world today so that people don’t overreact or underreact.

The other thing we do here is contextualize anti-Semitism in terms of what it means for the Jewish people. We are a people with a long and storied history, and we have experienced absolutely dark, terrible periods over that long history. But there are so many wonderful parts of Jewish history, as well. And an important part of what we do here, as opposed to, say, what other museums focused on our darkest periods, like the Holocaust, do — as important as those museums are — is to focus on the entire history of the Jewish people, both the bad and the good.

PND: I recently came across an interview in which the inter­viewer drew a distinction between optimism and hopeful­ness. Is that a useful distinction?

BM: I've been accused of being an optimist, and I won't deny it. For me, optimism is a way of being in the world. You either are one or you're not; it's in your DNA. Hopefulness, to me, is more strategic. I have a plan, I want to get something accomplished, and I'm hopeful I can get it done. And you know what? Sometimes you don't. But if you're an optimist, your optimism remains intact.

Let me give you an example. You asked about the crown jewel of the collections here at the center. Well, maybe it's not a crown jewel, but one of my personal favorites is a Juicy Fruit gum wrapper, and I'll tell you why I love it. Back before the Soviet Union collapsed, and before Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union in significant numbers, non-Soviet Jews traveling to the Soviet Union often would be asked to sneak a message in with them. "I want to get a message to my grandmother in Minsk. I can talk to her, but we have to be careful, and I can't send her a letter, for obvious reasons. Would you mind sneaking in a little message?" So the sister or granddaughter or whomever would buy a package of gum — for some reason, it always seemed to be Juicy Fruit — and when she got home would carefully open the package, take out a piece of gum, unwrap it, and on the inside of the wrapper, in tiny handwriting, write a message telling her sister, say, how much she missed her, how the family outside the Soviet Union was doing, all the little chit-chat and gossip that weaves families together. And when she was done, she would take the wrapper, re-wrap the piece of gum, re-seal the package, and off it would go with the person traveling to the Soviet Union, at no small risk, I might add, to that person. If you got caught, you were in serious trouble. And these packages of gum with their secret messages inside would go back and forth from families both outside and inside the Soviet Union. And I just find that to be wonderful and moving.

A small thing, perhaps, in the larger scheme of the Soviet Jewry movement. But on a very human scale it shows you how, even when faced with adversity, even when oppressed, people don't give up, they make plans, they buy their packages of gum and look to the future. And the moral of the story is that you can and should be hopeful about your individual plans, even knowing that sometimes they will not work out. But at the end of the day it's absolutely critical that you remain optimistic. I remain optimistic. Things will get better; I believe that. And those gum wrappers are there to remind me why.

— Mitch Nauffts

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