It is up to us to lend Lady Liberty our words—to translate her silence and the glow of her torch, to witness and articulate her stance “at our sea-washed, sunset gates.” In her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus allows the “Mother of Exiles” to speak to the world:
“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Through the poem, Lady Liberty promises a “world-wide welcome” and insists that it is uniquely American to accept “the homeless, the tempest-tost.” The poem’s vision of American inclusion clarifies the power and urgency of welcoming all who seek refuge here.
In 1883, Lazarus’s Lady Liberty—her torch of flame, of “imprisoned lightning”—faced the world and delivered a strong message of acceptance. But what might our Mother of Exiles say to us in 2019? In recent months, members of the American Jewish community—including Annie Polland, Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS)—have spoken out to ensure that Lazarus’s words are not only remembered, but also interpreted faithfully. But even beyond defending history, AJHS is showing us how to learn from Lazarus’s vision—and preparing us to enter a vital American conversation in our own words.
The Emma Lazarus Project of the American Jewish Historical Society—made possible in part by The Covenant Foundation—is a multifaceted initiative that illuminates Lazarus’s personal, political, and professional history. Here we meet the American Jewish writer who articulated Lady Liberty’s mission. In the case of the initiative’s exhibition component, From Sitting Room to Soap Box: Emma Lazarus, Union Square, and American Identity (opening at the Center for Jewish History in winter 2019), this meeting takes place in a re-creation of Lazarus’s own sitting room. The room also features a curated digital storybook that allows visitors to discover relevant images, words, photographs, and sources as they appear with each turn of the virtual page.
Being invited into Lazarus’s home means being invited into the environment where she read, studied, developed her approach, and wrote. What books were on her bookcase? What paintings graced her walls? What did “home” mean to a thinker who built such strong concepts of welcome and refuge?
Visitors should feel as though the poet herself has just been in the room—as though her words and ideas are fresh and demand consideration. With supplementary public programs, lesson plans and educational resources, and a nationwide poetry contest, AJHS is inviting diverse audiences to engage with Lazarus’s ideas in a number of ways. Participants in the Emma Lazarus Project will gain new insight into how she developed and expressed her perspective, exercised activism through her writing, and contributed to a national conversation that remains painfully relevant.
Emma Lazarus composed “The New Colossus” by request, as part of an effort to fundraise for the new Statue of Liberty. It was only in 1903—16 years after the poet’s death, in an act of tribute and memorial—that her words were engraved and installed in Lady Liberty’s pedestal. Now, Lazarus is best remembered for her poem. But in her own lifetime, she was known for a much wider array of literary production—including translations, fiction, essays, and editorials—and for her American Jewish identity.
Often referred to as “the Jewess” (in both descriptive and derogatory contexts), Lazarus was the most famous American Jewish writer of her time. She belonged to a Sephardic Jewish family, and she was outspoken in claiming her Jewish identity. Through her writing, Lazarus explored, shaped, and debated what it meant to be an American Jew, and what the broader community’s priorities, social obligations, and features should be. Her sense of her Jewish identity arose from arts and letters, from the literature and history that she studied. Lazarus entered public debates with other prominent Jewish intellectuals about what it meant to belong to the Jewish people. In her deeply informed—and sharply worded—published essays, she argued the very nature of Jewish life in America and beyond.
It is fitting, then, that Emma Lazarus’s collection (including a handwritten poetry manuscript that bears “The New Colossus” on its first page) resides in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society—an organization that is itself engaged in the central questions of what it means to be Jewish in America.
AJHS was founded in 1892, which makes it the oldest ethnic, cultural archive in the country. Within its robust collection of more than 30 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, artistic works, and artifacts are a multitude of stories of American Jewish people negotiating the various aspects of their identities. Granting access to these materials at the Center for Jewish History is about more than preserving the history of Jewish presence in the U.S. It is about providing the resources for what Executive Director Annie Polland calls a “strengthened, more vigorous identity” as American Jews in our own time.
“Substance is important for Jewish identity,” Polland explains, “and communities need stories.” Through learning, interpreting, discussing, and rethinking the stories that comprise our rich history, American Jewish people can create a more inclusive, expansive, precise, and informed sense of identity. People of all backgrounds can look to the history reflected in AJHS’s archive to consider what it means to live at the intersection of multiple identities—in Lazarus’s case, to be Jewish, and Sephardic, and a woman, and American. Emma Lazarus felt a deep and abiding connection to the broader Jewish people—advocating for the well-being of Eastern European Jewish immigrants even though she did not share their language, religious practices, or socioeconomic challenges. Rather than shying away from controversy, she pointed her work toward difficult, complicated questions. For AJHS, there is remarkable potential in reviving Lazarus’s story in this particular moment in time.
Emma Lazarus brought her entire self—all aspects of her identity, her experience, her deeply held principles, and her skills—to the subjects that she cared about. Constructing the vision of America that gleams in “The New Colossus” required nothing less. Through the Emma Lazarus Project, AJHS hopes to inspire people to take courage from Lazarus’s example and put pen to paper, shaping with words that which they wish to see in the world.
The Project’s nationwide poetry contest represents one of its ultimate ambitions. (Some early and phenomenal student entrants from Hunter Elementary are featured in the introductory video online.) Using words to form and reform our world—to repair our world—is a project of Jewish spirit and American necessity. We have learned the importance of defining the enduring symbol, Lady Liberty herself. It is up to us to lend her our words. The contest’s prompt is deceptively simple: “If you could write a poem for the Statue of Liberty today, what would it say?” Beside this question, so many golden doors.
By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation.
Miriam is the Director of Content and Strategy at Pure+Applied, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project