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Museum Musings

Military Seders Near and Far

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Those of us who come from families with military connections know that during holiday seasons, it is especially important to remember the sacrifices of Americans who are serving in the US Armed Forces.  As they fight to restore liberty to people across the globe and maintain our freedom at home, many Jewish soldiers celebrate Passover far from familiar surroundings. A Stars and Stripes article about a military Seder in Europe caught my eye yesterday and made me think of similar stories that have become a part of our artifact collection in recent years.

Wartime Seders organized by or for soldiers are nothing new and there are documented examples dating back to the Civil War in America. During World War II Passover, when families and friends come together to retell the story of the ancient Israelites’ liberation from bondage, took on very contemporary significance due to the extreme suffering of Europe’s Jewish communities.

 programCampGrantSeder Grantsoldiers 



Program and photograph from a Seder at Camp Grant, Rockville, Illinois, 1944 
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2011.124
Gift of Henry and Grace Sealine

The Jewish Welfare Board, established during World War I to tend to the spiritual needs of American Jewish soldiers by recruiting chaplains and arranging for prayer books, worked with the Jewish War Veterans and Ladies Auxiliaries to host a 1944 Seder for soldiers and personnel stationed at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. Rabbi Aaron Tofield, one of the 311 Jewish chaplains who served in World War II, officiated and 800 soldiers attended, along with many of their spouses who were visiting for the holiday. Henry Sealine (the farthest man to the right in the photo above, with his shoulder marked "ME" in white ink), was at the camp for basic training and he kept the program as a souvenir of the event.  The back of the program includes a space to write a note home to your family, in a not-too-subtle hint to the new soldiers to keep in touch with the folks.>





Photograph from a Seder in Liege, Belgium, 1945

National Museum of American Jewish History, 2012.4.1

Gift of the Feinberg/ Berg family in memory of Sidney Feinberg 

Sidney Feinberg was in Belgium serving as a teletypist in the spring of 1945 when he became friendly with the rabbi of the recently reopened synagogue in nearby Liege after walking there – for four miles every Friday evening – to attend services. Feinberg recalled that when the US Army asked the Yiddish and French speaking rabbi to conduct a Seder for the enlisted personnel in the area. The rabbi in turn asked Feinberg and another soldier, Captain Matthew Kleinman to assist him in overcoming the language barrier by standing with him and translating his words into English.  This photo shows the crowd in the requisitioned skating rink where the event was held – just a few of the thousands of enlisted American men and women who participated.  Many of these GIs and WACs were still in the area after they served in the Battle of the Bulge nearby just a few months earlier.



Photograph of George Halpern with his Seder hosts, 1943

National Museum of American Jewish History, 2011.102.80

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George M. Halpern 

Soldiers who were overseas but perhaps not at a big military installation or in an area where there happened to be many fellow Jewish soldiers could observe holidays with local families. George Halpern, stationed in Australia in 1943, sent this photograph home to his family, telling them about the “swell” Melbourne family the USO had put him in contact with for Passover.

Far from home during a holiday that is very community-oriented, Jewish soldiers joined with chaplains, fellow soldiers, local clergy, and civilians, to forge new wartime communities and observe their faith during an extraordinary time in their lives. Assisted and encouraged to do this by both Jewish and secular organizations, many of them noted that the military Seders they experienced during World War II held special significance with the awareness that they were fighting to help their coreligionists who were suffering through the Holocaust.

So, this Passover, please remember those soldiers who are serving far from home this spring!  

-Contributed by Claire Pingel, Chief Registrar and Associate Curator

March 27, 2013


This is about believing in yourself

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I have to say, I wasn’t so surprised to hear that Sheryl Sandberg had formed Lean In, a new movement and book to empower women to take their rightful seats at the table and pursue their personal and professional goals. That’s because Sandberg’s bat mitzvah story is a part of our traveling exhibition presented with Moving Traditions,Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age, which will be on view at the Jewish Museum of Florida beginning April 9th*. The exhibition shows how bat mitzvah evolved from a radical, 1922 innovation by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his daughter, Judith, into a nearly universal American tradition. At its essence, Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age is a story about how individuals shape and change tradition, which is just what Sandberg calls for in Lean In: starting the conversation and inspiring women to find their voices and become changemakers.




Sheryl Sandberg became a bat mitzvah in December of 1982 at Temple Sinai in Miami, Florida. For that occasion, she was twinned with refusenikKira Volvovsky of Gorky, USSR, who was unable to celebrate her own bat mitzvah under an oppressive Soviet regime.  Did Sandberg’s bat mitzvah, a rite her mother and grandmothers never had the opportunity to enjoy, inspire her to work toward changing the nature of women’s leadership roles in the workplace, at home, and in their communities? I wonder, too, if twinning with a refusenik (the “social media” of the 80s?) encouraged her to now challenge the status quo in a big way.




So though a flurry of recent press focuses on her superhuman ability to have it all as a working mom—balancing engaged parenting with the demands of a high-level career—Sheryl Sandberg’s propensity to reach out, lean in, and take action actually dates back a few decades.  How perfect that Bat Mitzvah is on its way to Miami, the city where Sandberg came of age.




At the end of her video pitch for the Lean In project, she sums up the importance of this endeavor with simple reasoning: “This is about believing in yourself.” As Sandberg and the dozens of other women in Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age have shown us, bat mitzvah wouldn’t be the ubiquitous rite it is today without the girls (and their parents and their rabbis) who believed in themselves, and in the dynamism of Jewish life, enough to take a risk and start a conversation.




- Contributed by Ivy Weingram, Associate Curator




*You can still catch the exhibition through March 29th in the Janice Charach Gallery of the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit.