On March 19, 2023, at Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, in partnership with the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, convened a historic conference across multiple organizations and faiths, titled “Restoring the American Story.”
Chaired by Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and Bradly Prize-winning historian Dr. Wilfred McClay, author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, the program, sponsored by Mitch Julis, Elie Gindi and the Jack Miller Center, was a follow up to a small-group teachers seminar offered in summer 2022 that featured renowned historians Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, author of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, and Dr. Diana Schaub, author of His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation.
The March conference offered over 70 teachers from across the United States, educational non-profit administrators and YU students an in-depth look into the role the Hebrew Bible has played in the American story. Partnering organizations included Open DorMedia, the Tikvah Fund, Civic Spirit, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, the Religious Freedom Institute, the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and a host of other scholarly centers and educational organizations.
Rabbi Soloveichik opened the program by arguing that the covenantal nature of America’s union empowers the nation to overcome its flaws and achieve great moral and political heights. Like the Israelites amidst their desert wanderings in the Book of Exodus, the American people are able to surpass their faults in fulfillment of their covenantal ideals. Thus, to commit to the American covenant is to commit to the idea that people—and nations—can change for the better.
Elana Riback Rand, doctoral fellow at the Azrieli Graduate School, utilizing Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writings on shame vs. guilt cultures, presented pedagogical tools and methods for participants to apply in their own classrooms, focusing on how students might consider to what extent we are governed by the mistakes of the past, how political and social movements can serve as a means of fulfilling covenantal possibilities and how Jewish law views atonement and redemption.
Following Rand’s presentation, Dr. McClay examined why knowledge of religion should be a part of a standard education for all Americans and why a faith-based education, particularly a Jewish one, should include an acquaintance with American history. His answers included “the foundational argument,” which, he argued, “points back to our historical roots, the animating spirit of the American Founders and the constitutional order they devised and instituted. The Founders had diverse views about a variety of matters, very much including their own personal religious convictions, but they were in complete and emphatic agreement about one thing: the inescapable importance of religion, and of the active encouragement of religious belief, for the success of the American experiment.” He also argued that “the national purpose rightly understood ought to seek, not to undermine particular affinities or purposes, but to strengthen them. Hence a faith-based account of the national history will include its ability to embrace pluralism.” Furthermore, “properly understood, the American civil religion also draws upon sources of moral authority that transcend the state and are capable of holding the state accountable to a standard higher than itself.”
Danton Kostandarithes, teacher education fellow at the Jack Miller Center, offered a pedagogical perspective on the themes of Dr. McClay’s presentation, with one sample lesson showing how the very architecture of houses of worship reflect particular faith communities’ religious ideals and spiritual leadership, and another focusing on religious freedom and the courts.
In the day’s first keynote conversation, Rabbi Soloveichik interviewed renowned scholar of American Jewish history, Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun University Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Dr. Sarna spoke about the future of historical study in our era of “cancel culture.” He spotlighted the New York City Council’s 2021 decision to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the City Hall, given the founding father’s tarnished history as a slave owner. More recently, Princeton University scrapped an exhibit on Jewish American art featuring work by the renowned post-bellum sculptor and former confederate Moses Ezekiel. Dr. Sarna also noted that both Jefferson and Ezekiel were individuals who, despite their checkered past, ideologically disapproved of slavery. Dr. Sarna also showcased America’s Public Bible, an online repository of citations of the Bible in American newspapers over the past 200 years, a priceless tool for both educators and anyone interested in the Bible’s reception history in the United States.
Next, participants heard presentations by curricular developers and educational media companies about online resources and new programs available to enhance classroom learning and teacher training. A particular highlight was the premiere of OpenDor Media’s new video on the Scroll of Esther’s role in the American political tradition. Offered alongside accompanying educational resources for the classroom, including the Straus Center’s Esther in America book, the video is a visually engaging portal of entry into the surprising and inspiring role the ancient Jewish queen has played, and continues to play, in American society today.
The Straus Center’s Dr. Shaina Trapedo then presented a talk on Psalms and the American Founding, recounting the incredible story of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in colonial America. She traced the enduring influence of Psalms on English literature, noting how great poets from Shakespeare to Wordsworth drew inspiration from King David’s ancient verse and rhyme.
Building off of Dr. Trapedo’s presentation, Jackie Rosensweig, chair of the history department at Manhattan High School for Girls, offered a model lesson centered on a collection of letters exchanged between founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, which showcased their intimate familiarity with Jewish texts and sources, including the Psalms. In one exchange, Jefferson makes reference to the Mishnah, Gemarah, Kabbalah, Kuzari and Sefer Yetzirah, while Adams bemoans the burning of the Talmud in France during the Middle Ages.
Best-selling presidential historian and former deputy secretary of health and human services Dr. Tevi Troy offered an engaging presentation on American presidents’ relationship with the Bible, including Jimmy Carter’s teaching Sunday school for decades, Harry Truman’s touting his early support of the State of Israel by proclaiming “I am Cyrus” (a reference to the Persian king mentioned in the Bible) and George W. Bush’s habit of completing reading the Bible once a year. Troy noted that even in today’s polarized age, presidents from both sides of the aisle continue to cite the Bible in both inaugural addresses and major public addresses.
Nina Taub, director of education at Civic Spirit, then had attendees break up into small groups to explore Jewish and American sources relating to Divine Providence in Jewish and American History, a fascinatingly rich exercise that paired a diverse group of learners (one study group featured a YU administrator, a public-school curriculum design specialist from Tennessee and a Bible professor and former pastor from a Christian college).
The second keynote conversation featured Dr. Dru Johnson, director of the Center for Hebraic Thought at King’s College, and Dr. Elizabeth Kaufer Busch, director of American Studies at Christopher Newport University, moderated by Rabbi Soloveichik. The panel examined how the Bible might be used as a source of American reconciliation during divided times. Dr. Johnson noted the standard pattern in scripture of biblical heroes acknowledging their mistakes and argued that Americans should similarly learn to acknowledge problematic episodes in their collective past as a part of the ever-progressing tapestry of American history. Dr. Busch, a member of the White House’s committee planning America’s 250th-anniversary celebration, noted that as a nation built upon ideas, it is imperative that Americans identify and emphasize those shared notions and principles which bind them together despite their differences.
Following a dinner-time screening of OpenDor Media’s other new video (a planned four in conjunction with the Restoring the American Story project) centered upon the Exodus as America’s unifying national narrative and released in advance of Passover, the Straus Center’s Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner closed the conference with “John Milton in America.” Lerner offered a presentation of Milton’s usage of the Greco-Roman epic style to subvert the pagan cosmological hierarchy, which grades mortals according to their power and pedigree. Instead, Milton presented, in his opus Paradise Lost, protagonists who are tested by their internal spiritual struggles. This shift of focus onto the individual’s internal struggle paved the way toward the revolutionary notion that all men are created equal.
The conference proceedings, in addition to the summer 2022 seminars, will be collected in a book, to be edited by Dr. McClay.
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