Tuesday, December 20, 2022
In November 1896, the editors of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent wrote about the “Meaning of Hanucca.” In their column, the newspapermen suggested that the “philosophy of Jewish history,” in the main, is that “wherever Jews rise to prominence and opulence, they feel its pains.” Hellenism, to the Judeans, was alluring and treacherous. Hanukkah, according to this point of view, is a warning against too much assimilation at the looming risk of bigoted backfire.
The gesture to Jewish history drew on a set of lectures delivered a fortnight prior under the auspices of the recently established Gratz College. Eager to raise the school’s nascent profile, President Moses Dropsie arranged for European scholars to travel and lecture in Philadelphia and New York. Earlier that year, Dropsie imported Solomon Schechter, then of Cambridge. In October, he summoned Joseph Jacobs, president of the British Folk-Lore Society to deliver five lectures on the “Philosophy of Jewish History” before standing-room-only audiences at Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Philadelphia’s Jewish press expressed “genuine pleasure” with the announcement of Jacobs’s arrival and dedicated a half-column to reproduce the historian’s curriculum vitae. Ironically, though, the Exponent misunderstood the core of the scholarly visitor’s thesis. Jacobs, though, couldn’t have been much clearer. First, he polled his audience and summarily rejected each proposal, as reported in the papers: “What, he asked, was the link which united the Jews? Race, cried one; common faith, another; persecution, a third; the hope of a glorious future, a fourth; the hope of regaining the Holy Land, cried another.”
Jacobs turned down each suggestion. Instead, he insisted that the philosophy of Jewish history centered on a “Jewish spirit which had pervaded all ages and civilizations since man became conscious.” Jewish wisdom, as I would rephrase it, represents the accrual of broad experiences—sometimes complementary and in other occasions conflicting—throughout Jewish history: “We are Orientals and Occidentals,” explained Jacobs, “ancients and moderns, national and cosmopolitan.”
Jacobs’ insight reminded me of some feedback received by a recent Gratz graduate. Michal Ilai, a teacher at The Weber School in Atlanta, recently completed a Master’s in Jewish Professional Studies, and was the first recipient of Gratz’s Certificate in Hebrew Language Instruction. Michal stressed that her program’s curriculum and her advisors helped broaden her personal and professional growth, that it “widened her knowledge.” Michal offered an example:
"I was surprised that “Strategic Planning in the Nonprofit Organization” became one of my favorite classes. The course clarified for me the importance of intentionality within all departments of organizations. It gave me the tools to plan, implement, and assess productivity within my professional circle and beyond. More importantly, it taught me how to offer solutions to improve the day-to-day functioning of Jewish nonprofit organizations. And the best part is, this knowledge is applicable to every space I enter. That is a gift I will forever cherish."
Michal’s reflection made me recall the wisdom of another recent Gratz graduate student. “How are you going to be a light when everyone’s is the same?” asked Elijah M. LaPrince, Sr. (M.A. Jewish Professional Studies, ‘20) referring to the diverse needs of the Jewish community. Perhaps Joseph Jacobs would have related the same message had he tethered his history lesson to Hanukkah. Lined up in a row of kindled flames, a light is most distinguishable when it illuminates differently than the ones beside it.
Each member of Gratz’s cherished community of learners shines in their unique way. Every student and scholar is a complex composite of their experiences, made broader and richer by the spirit and wisdom of Gratz College.