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How Was the Situation for Jews Different in America Than in Europe?

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Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power with an ideology of national and racial superiority

As the Nazis deepened their control over Germany in the 1930s, they implemented policies and passed laws that stigmatized and persecuted many groups of people that they considered to be outsiders and enemies of Germany, including Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti people. Violence against Jews and their property was on the rise. During Kristallnacht in 1938, synagogues, businesses, and homes were burned and thousands of Jews were interned for varying periods of time in concentration camps.

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American Jewish history commenced in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Spain. This action set off a period of intense Jewish migration. Seeking to escape the clutches of the Holy Inquisition, some Jews in the sixteenth century sought refuge in the young Calvinist republic of The Netherlands. A century later, hundreds of their descendants crossed the ocean to settle in the new Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil, where Jewish communal life became possible for the first time in the New World. When Portugal recaptured this colony in 1654, its Jews scattered. Refugees spread through the Dutch Caribbean, beginning fresh Jewish communities

A boatload of about 23 Jews sailed into the remote Dutch port of New Amsterdam and requested permission to remain. This marked the beginning of Jewish communal life in North America. The American Revolution marked a turning point not only in American Jewish history, but in modern Jewish history generally. Never before had a major nation committed itself so definitively to the principles of freedom and democracy in general and to religious freedom in particular. Jews and members of other minority religions could dissent from the religious views of the majority without fear of persecution. Jews still had to fight for their rights on the state level, and they continued to face various forms of prejudice nationwide. However, many Jews benefited materially from the Revolution and interacted freely with their non-Jewish neighbors. Having shed blood for their country side by side with their Christian fellows, Jews as a group felt far more secure than they had in colonial days. They asserted their rights openly and, if challenged, defended themselves both vigorously and self-confidently. In the nineteenth century, American Jews, seeking to strengthen Judaism against its numerous Christian competitors in the marketplace of American religions, introduced various religious innovations, some of them borrowed from their neighbors. Young Jews in Charleston, dissatisfied with the "apathy and neglect" they saw manifested toward their religion, somewhat influenced by the spread of Unitarianism, fearful of Christian missionary activities that had begun to be directed toward local Jews, and, above all, passionately concerned about Jewish survival in a free society, created the breakaway "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit." This was America's first Reform congregation, with an abbreviated service, vernacular prayers, and regular sermons. Traditional congregations also "Protestantized" some of their practices, introducing regular English sermons and more decorous modes of worship.

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Cohen (2000) postulates that “Sabbath is another area of practice that requires attention and resolution” (p. 61). I, definitely, can identify with this statement

For one thing, my parents were no longer able to drive on Sabbath. In addition, my brothers and I were forced to participate in the ‘Kidush’ on Friday evenings; for a teenager, it was quite a problematic situation since I was supposed to have joined my friends, but instead I had to stay at home. Lastly, since my mother would not allow cooking or making a fire during the Sabbath, we were always under pressure and stress to prepare dinner right in time. I can also remember a specific event that caused a huge argument between my parents and me. It was during the Sabbath following the birth of my eldest son. My father, among other parents, asked God to bless my newly born child. Before the event, I was told by my parents to not give a name before my baby’s circumcision. I remember asking my father the reason behind this request, however, he was reluctant to answer me. I was so upset with this requirement since I did not understand the logic behind it. It was only after the rabbi’s teaching that day, that I learnt a lot about the naming of children according to the Jewish law. According to the ‘Halacha’, the naming of boys occurs eight days after they are born; that is, during their circumcision. On the other hand, naming of girls occurs on the Sabbath following their birth. I have also observed this in the naming of my youngest twins. In addition, in providing chairs to the participants of the circumcision of my son, I realized that my mother had provided an extra seat. As if this was not enough, she also provided some wine, which she said was for the little baby. I wondered how my mother could give wine to such an innocent infant though I did not give it much thought. Once the ceremony was over, I did not hesitate to ask my mother about the significance of the extra seat and the wine. She told me that the extra seat signified the presence of Elijah. It is meant for the continuation, or rather for the propagation, of the Jewish faith in all generations. As cited in Cohen’s article (2000), …women have been more involved in the intimate aspects of their families than men …Jewishly committed fathers, in contrast with jewishly committed mothers, emerge as principled, learned, educationally oriented, and involved in synagogue life. Mothers are remembered for their immediate relationship with the children and other family members, for their greater responsibility for the home, holidays, and kashrut (pp.55-56).

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After all, Jewish life had become very different in Eastern and Western Europe in modern times

Western Jewry had socially and culturally integrated itself to the extent that they could not imagine that a genocide could happen in the western culture to which they felt they belonged. In Poland, Jews remained a nation apart, fighting for minority rights while in the Soviet Union, Judaism itself, was almost extinguished by government politics. The increasing influence of anti-Semitism and anti-democratic parties in many European countries destabilized Jewish existence even before the Holocaust.

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Cohen, S. (2000). The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cohen, S. (2008). Identity and Jewish education. In R. Goodman, A. P. Flexner, & L. D.

Bloomberg, L. D. (Eds.), What we know about Jewish Education: Prospectives on Research for Practice (pp. 75-82) Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions.

National Museum of American Jewish History. Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today

Silver, J., dir. (1975). Hester Street. USA: Midwest Films.

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