This past winter break, my family visited Charleston, South Carolina. Over the course of four days, we toured a plantation, took the ferry to Fort Sumter and visited the two historic synagogues remaining downtown. The highlight for me was our visit to two early 19th century mansions located in the oldest part of the city.
The first, the Aiken-Rhett House was built in 1820 by merchant John Robinson and expanded by Governor and Mrs. William Aiken Jr. in the 1830’s. This house is by far one of the best-preserved complexes in the nation.
The second, the Nathaniel Russell House, contains only one original chair from 1808, but the house has been meticulously restored and maintained to its original appearance using cutting edge scientific methods and historical analysis. The signature feature is a three-story, cantilevered, “flying” staircase!
The impact of experiencing history viscerally by walking with my family in the path of our American ancestors sharpened my understanding of how deeply ingrained the heights of both American patriotism and pride and American sins and suffering are. Whether the slave quarters were original or restored, I was able to walk away with a clearer understanding of the exploitation of slaves and willful blindness to inequality that is part of our history. The opulent houses provided me an opportunity to experience architectural masterpieces and the rich cultural and historical heritage of one of our Nation’s oldest cities but showed the obvious inequity between owners and slaves. Whether preserved or restored, I understood the nuances and worked to ensure my own children did as well.
As American Jews, we know this lesson doubly well. We recognize the importance of knowing our history and preserving our sacred texts, artifacts and symbols that document it. The recent spike in hate crimes, anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers is more than enough evidence of the consequences of not preserving the past and learning from it.
As Jews, we also know that this is not enough. We know we also need seek to learn from history and then act to improve the future. To do any less would be to ossify Judaism, which would dishonor our heritage and ensure its ultimate demise. It is incumbent on us to act on the implications of the values that our tradition teaches us so that we can expand it through the texts that we produce today, the interpretations we offer, the way we live as Jews and the way we interact with the larger society.
This is after all, what we do and aspire to do each and every day at Krieger Schechter. As we embark on our second semester we will soon experience many of the signature moments that have existed since the earliest years after the founding of our school: The first grade Chagigat HaSiddur and for more than 25 years, our all-Hebrew 8th grade play. Each of these moments honors the past by preserving a key value that is sacred to our school, our mission and our Jewish people. Yet, each year’s event takes on its own unique character. Every year, our dynamic faculty reflect on the previous years’ programs and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that our program remains as current, relevant, rich and meaningful to students and families this year as it was for previous generations.
Yesterday, I traveled to New York to see a joint performance by the Krieger Schechter and Cardinal Shehan School choirs filmed before a live studio audience for the daytime ABC show The View. What better example is there of educating American Jews, promoting justice, understanding and respect than to be witness to this extraordinary moment. You can see the production and set your DVR to record The View on Monday January 20th at 11am on ABC.
Rabbi Moshe Schwartz
Head of School