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Museum Musings

Life in a Jar

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Below, is a blogpost written by one of three students who took part in a National History Day in 1999. Megan Felt (then Megan Stewart performed in “Life in a Jar”, a play that will be shown at the Museum two times. The first time will be just for students and the second for the general public.

Life in a Jar  

irina sendlerIn the fall of 1999, a rural Kansas teacher encouraged three students to work on a year-long National History Day project which would, among other things, extend the boundaries of the classroom to families in the community, contribute to history learning, teach respect and tolerance, and meet our classroom motto, “He who changes one person, changes the world entire.”

Two ninth graders, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and an eleventh grader, Sabrina Coons, accepted the challenge and decided to enter a project in the National History Day program. The inspiration was a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report their teacher had shared with them which said, "Irena Sendler saved many children and adults from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942." Her network saved many children from the Ghetto, and provided hiding locations for over 2,000 of them. The teacher, Mr. Conard, also told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story. The students began their research and looked for primary and secondary sources throughout the year. This research project would become their National History Day Project, a performance called Life in a Jar.

The students wrote Life in a Jar (in which they portrayed the life of Irena Sendler. They have since performed this program hundreds of times for numerous clubs and civic groups in the community, around the state of Kansas, all over North America and in Europe. Their small Kansas community had little diversity and no Jewish students in the school district. The community was inspired by the project and sponsored an Irena Sendler Day. The students began to search for the final resting place of Irena and discovered she was still alive and living in Warsaw, Poland.  Irena's story was unknown world-wide, even though she had received esteemed recognition from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Israel) in 1965 and support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City
. Forty-five years of communism had buried her story, even in her own country.

From that time on they would take a jar to every performance and collect funds for Irena and other Polish rescuers, which also inspired the name, Life in a Jar. The significance of this project really started to grow with community support. Community contacts assisted the students in sending funds to Poland for the care of Irena and of other rescuers. They wrote Irena and she wrote dozens of deeply meaningful letters to them, with such comments as, "my emotion is being shadowed by the fact that my co-workers have all passed on, and these honors fall to me.  I can't find words to thank you, for my own country and the world to know of the bravery of rescuers. Before the day you had written Life in a Jar, the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago. You are my dearly beloved ones."

Irena passed away on May 12, 2008. She was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery. Her family and many of the rescued children continue to tell her story of courage and valor. The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, this web site, through schools and study guides, and world media.


In 2009 the Hallmark Hall of Fame produced The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler for CBS. There is also an award-winning book available about the girls and Irena called, "Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project."



Singing a New Song

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placingtallisRecently, I had the distinct privilege of participating in the ceremony at NMAJH in which Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. was inaugurated as the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. More than 300 guests from all aspects of the movement and its allies celebrated this historic occasion—the sixth president of the RRC and the first woman to lead one of the major movements of Judaism.
Of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History is not affiliated with any denominational movement, though we teach a bit about the history of each in our core exhibition. We are proud that the Museum daily presents the story of Mordechai Kaplan and the foundations of the distinctly American Reconstructionist movement. Many of the themes of the movement are explored more broadly in our exhibition—democracy, inclusion, and facing head-on the choices and challenges of American Jewry in the modern era. Just as we look at Jewish tradition, we explore how those traditions have been changed and adapted over time, pointing to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness of the community. In celebrating Rabbi Waxman’s inauguration, the Museum didn’t only teach history, we witnessed and participated in its enactment. What an honor!
Perhaps the most moving part of a very powerful ceremony was when youngsters from the Camp JRF sang accapella “Zeh hayom.” Or maybe it was when Rabbi Waxman articulated her vision for the future, or when RRC faculty member Jacob Staub recited a poem he had written for the occasion, which began: “Rejoice, O women of Judah./Sing the song of autumn leaves,/arrayed in a shuk of stunning colors/proclaiming the dramatic change of seasons…” It may have been when all the assembled sang from Psalm 96:1-2, a shir hadash—a new song.
May the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Rabbi Dr. President Deborah Waxman go from strength to strength.

Written by Ivy Barsky, CEO and Gwen Goodman Director
Image: Seth Rosen, Chair, Community Engagement Committee, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Hon. Abraham Clott, Chair, Congregational Services Committee, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Judith Spatz, Chair, Jewish Reconstructionist Camping Corporation
Susan Beckerman, Vice Chair, Board of Governors, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
David Roberts, Chair, Board of Governors, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities