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Was Our 27th President Antisemitic?

Posted on February 17th, 2020 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

People who follow this blog post know that I usually do a posting each year about a U.S. president and their relationship to the Jewish community.  Recent examples include Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  While I remember doing one on James Madison and another on Woodrow Wilson, most of our first 25 presidents have little contact with Jewish people until adulthood.  Until the 20th century all of our presidents grew up in rural areas… even John Adams lived on a farm in Braintree until the time he entered college at Harvard at age 16.

I went on a search for the first US president to grow up in a city, reasoning that he would be likely to have had more contact with the Jewish community in his childhood.  I quickly found William Howard Taft, 27th President of the US.  Most of us, if we remember Taft at all, remember him for his girth…the only resident of the White House to top 300 pounds.  But born and raised in Cincinnati, he is also the first truly urban President.

And it turns out that my suspicion that he had significant Jewish contacts in his youth was also correct.

According to, Taft attended a Unitarian church that happened to be located across the street from the Plum Street Temple, presided over by Isaac Mayer Wise, the most preeminent Reform rabbi of his era.  Indeed, it appears that Rabbi Wise entered into an interchange with the Unitarian minister, making Taft the first future President to have listened to a rabbi’s sermons in his youth (the article in goes on to point out that in later years, Taft would comment on how impressed he was with Wise’s lectures).

Just a few months after Taft is inaugurated in 1909, he becomes the first sitting President to speak at a regular Shabbat service (at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh).  Taft was well-regarded for keeping America open to immigrants despite a rising tide of nativist sentiment.  He was awarded a medal by B’nai Brith for his “service to the Jewish race,” especially for his decision to abrogate a commercial treaty with Russia due to Russia’s policy of banning visits by American citizens of the Jewish faith.

With all this said, it is more than a little surprising that a Google search of “William Howard Taft” and “Jewish” yields results like “Anti-Semitic Taft Letter to be Auctioned” and “A Massively Anti-Semitic Letter Sent by William Howard Taft”.  The flurry of articles in the Jewish press and elsewhere turns out to be inspired by the decision of the Nate D. Sanders auction house auction to put a four-page screed by Taft from 1916 opposing the appointment of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court. To put it in context, the letter is written to Gus Karger, a Jewish journalist whom Taft is friendly with. Much of the language in the letter lives up to its billing, he references Jewish “clannishness” and calls Brandeis  “cunning,” a “hypocrite,” and “a power for evil”.  In the end the auction house failed to get its minimum $15,000 bid for the document despite all the free publicity.

Reading through a few complete passages in the letter, I came away with a more nuanced impression of its content.  It becomes clear that however inept and inappropriate his expression, Taft’s motivation is to get his friend to denounce Brandeis from within the Jewish community.  He is trying to suggest that Brandeis is a radical and should not be automatically embraced by his co-religionists.

And where did Taft’s animus for Brandeis come from?  It turns out that Brandeis played a small but significant role in making Taft a one-term president.  This involves something known as the Ballinger Affair…let me try to break this down as best as I understand it.  In spite of promises to continue Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy of the conservation of public lands, Taft appointed former Seattle mayor, Richard Ballinger to be Secretary of Interior.  Ballinger set about re-privatizing public lands.  This raised the ire of progressives who set about publicly denouncing Taft, including in testimony before Congress by Roosevelts close friend and holdover from his administration, conservation pioneer Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot cannot show that Taft was breaking any law, but highlighted a potential abuse of power in using his office to solicit financial support from prominent mining and logging interests. In the magazines the headlines read “Are the Guggenheim’s in charge of the Department of Interior?”

And in editorial cartoons like this, claimed that Taft was in league with Senator Simon Guggenheim (just coincidence that the individual singled out for undue influence is a Jewish senator?).

Taft/Ballinger end up firing the leading progressives in their administration, including Gifford Pinchot.  Pinchot secures Louis Brandeis as his attorney for a hearing in Congress about his firing.  Brandeis is able to prove that the President backdated memos he claimed he had reviewed before firing Pinchot.  At that time, the President being caught lying to the American people was such a scandal that Taft’s Republicans were trounced in the 1910 election and the treatment of Pinchot so angered Teddy Roosevelt that he decided to come out of retirement and run against Taft in 1912, splitting the Republican Party and guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.

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Education Spotlight

Posted on February 14th, 2020 by

Performance Counts: February 2020

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes to us from Director of Learning and Visitor Experience Ilene Dackman-Alon. Below, Ilene shares three of the major projects our education team has been working on this year. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

JMM’s education department has not skipped a beat in the new year! School groups are enjoying the Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling exhibit, and the activities our department has created help students learn the stories of scrap families as well as use critical thinking skills to imagine what it might be like to work in a scrap yard.

The student response has been incredibly enthusiastic, especially as we discuss the importance of recycling and taking care of the environment. They are quick to identify differences they can make in their own schools, homes, and communities. We are also receiving positive feedback from our visiting teachers, who cite how much they love seeing their students engage with the exhibit and activities. Teachers have also confirmed the effectiveness of the curricular guide we send them in advance of their field trip experience to JMM.

In addition to our exhibit-based education programming, the team has been hard at work creating and refining projects and programs for a variety of different audiences, from hands-on student work to teacher professional development. There are three programs in particular that are coming to fruition over the next two months, and we wanted to share them with you!

1. Winter Teachers Institute 2020: Confronting Antisemitism

For many years, JMM and the Baltimore Jewish Council have co-sponsored the very successful Summer Teachers Institute (STI), a three-day professional development opportunity dedicated to providing teachers with resources and materials to help them teach about the Holocaust in their classrooms. Each day of the Institute takes place in a different location – JMM, the United States Holocaust Museum (USHMM), and a changing third location (last year’s Day 3 took place at the American Visionary Art Museum).

Through STI we are able to provide an incredibly important professional development opportunity for teachers and educators at all levels and located all over the state of Maryland. The experience allows participants to not just be a student in the classroom, learning something new, but also providing them with the tools and resources to bring back to their classrooms. In addition, participants can receive achievement units which are applied to their continuing education requirements.With such a positive track record, last year we decided to expand our efforts in professional development and Holocaust education by piloting the first Winter Teachers Institute (WTI),which coincided with the Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibit. Like STI, this two-day event took place at two different locations, the first day here at JMM and the second day at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China and USHMM in Washington, DC.

The response to this program was overwhelmingly positive and this weekend we debut Day 1 of the second annual Winter Teachers Institute: Confronting Antisemitism. This first Sunday, February 16th, will take place at JMM and the second Sunday, February 23rd, will take place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC, where participants will see the Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away exhibit. Over the two days, teachers will learn from scholars, educators, and Holocaust survivors, exploring the topic of antisemitism through historical and contemporary lenses.

This year’s Winter Teachers Institute is made possible, in part, through the generous support of Sheldon and Saralynn Glass and the Joan G. & Joseph Klein, Jr. Foundation.

2. My Family Story 2020

2020 marks our 6th consecutive year of participation in the international education program presented in collaboration with Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Israel. Jewish students from area schools research their family history with a goal of presenting their family stories and placing these stories in the broader context of Jewish history. Through interviews with family members and independent research, students make significant discoveries about who they are and where their families came from. They learn about historical events that have affected their families and discover their connections to the Jewish community. You can read more about JMM’s involvement with My Family Story here.Students, with the help of their teachers, transform these family stories into meaningful art installations, reflecting personal heritage and pride. The art installations are displayed and judged, with winners selected to have their project presented for inclusion in the international My Family Story exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot. The competition is intense, and for the past five years, the Baltimore Jewish community has been represented at the international show! Students whose projects were selected also receive a trip to Israel to take part in the opening exhibit ceremonies at the Museum. This year, if a Baltimore student project is selected, we will work with The Associated to arrange a special visit for the student(s) and their families to visit Baltimore’s sister city, Ashkelon.

3D Pens at Ohr Chadash Academy and Mannequin head at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

This year we will host projects from students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Bolton Street Synagogue Religious School, and Ohr Chadash Academy. Over the past few weeks our staff have visited the students at some of this year’s participating schools to learn more about their projects and the stories behind them. The kinds of materials we’ve observed the students using to tell their own individual stories are so unique, including mannequin heads, 3D pens, and paper towel rolls! We can’t wait for you to come and see the projects for yourselves. Families will celebrate their enterprising students’ works at a special reception on February 27th, but the projects will only be on display to the public March 1 – 8, 2020, so don’t delay on planning your visit!My Family Story at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is supported, in part, by the Ronnie and Alli Russel Charitable Foundation.

3.The Immigrant’s Trunk: Ida Rehr Education Initiative

The last education program – and the newest – is one we are particularly excited to share. Thanks to a generous grant from the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, we have been able to create a new, expanded experience around our Ida Rehr living history character.

The Ida Rehr Education Initiative combines aspects of the beloved Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore exhibit and the living history performance of Ida Rehr, a Jewish immigrant who arrived in Baltimore from Ukraine in 1914. The combination is achieved with a comprehensive learning packet that supports learning outcomes in Jewish history, social studies, storytelling, and primary-source research. The experience introduces students to concepts and themes such as Jewish immigration, Americanization, and Baltimore and Maryland history. The Ida Rehr living history character is portrayed by professional actress Katherine Lyons, who has been playing the role for over 15 years.

To expand the living history character experience beyond a single performance, we have created three distinct modules for the project, each building on the previous experience. The program begins with a trip to the classroom that features the Ida Rehr living history performance. Following the performance, the students will then visit the Museum to explore the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and our Voices of Lombard Street exhibit. During this visit to JMM, our education staff will help the students make connections between their in-class experience with Ida and their time at the Museum.

The third module takes the experience back into the classroom. Students will watch a newly created video featuring the character of Ida Rehr, who will invite the students to open a trunk that has been delivered to the classroom. In the trunk we have placed reproductions of artifacts that Ida highlighted in her performance. In the video, Ida guides the students through several activities that will culminate in them creating a classroom exhibit of Ida Rehr’s life. Students will work to create labels to identify each item and explain how each object, photo, and document relate to Ida’s immigration experience.

A little behind-the-scenes excitement for you – the education team had a wonderful time and learned a lot by working with a real camera crew, complete with film and cameras, lights and lighting, sound, a make-up artist and lunch for the crew, in the process of creating the video!

We can’t wait to share this experience with students all over Maryland. This spring (2020) we are piloting this education initiative in Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools served by CHAI’s Schools and Community Partnerships team. After this spring’s pilot, we will refine the experience as needed and begin outreach to a wide variety of schools in our networks, public, private, independent, parochial, Jewish, and non-Jewish. We are confident students and their teachers will really enjoy this extension of the living history character experience and how each of the modules is founded on a well-rounded, hands-on, sensory unit on immigration. This Initiative also offers a wonderful opportunity to extend the lessons and encourage students to apply what they have learned to exploring their own personal and family histories.

The Immigrant’s Trunk: Ida Rehr Education Initiative was funded by the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

Our education team is excited to share these initiatives and programs with you! We are always working to provide the best educational experiences possible to our students, visitors, members, and friends and we’ve got even more coming down the pipeline.

Looking forward to sharing even more innovative work from the JMM education department with you in the future!

Header Image: Mr. Almy sits at his teaching desk at City College, c. 1930-1945. Gift of Stanford C. Reed, JMM 1987.19.36.

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Researching Photos from the Oheb Shalom Collection

Posted on February 13th, 2020 by

Blog post by JMM archivist Lorie Rombro. You can read more posts by Lorie HERE.

Recently I was working on a photograph collection of images from Temple Oheb Shalom. I came upon an interesting folder labeled, “identified early congregants”. In the folder I found a collection of carte-de-visite, a type pf photograph made of a thin paper with the image mounted on a thicker paper card, each with a name written on the back. The photographs were from a time when Temple Oheb Shalom was located at 109-115 South Hanover Street and the Rabbi was Benjamin Szold, ca. 1858-1880. Many of the names were difficult to read but it gave me a starting point on trying to figure out who these congregants were. Most of the information I was able to find did not come from our collection and since I am often asked how we research I thought I could share some of the process that was used.

A sepia tone image of a woman and written on the back was Mrs. Eisler. Courtesy of Temple Oheb Shalom, JMM 2004.097.108.

Although I was unable to find additional information on Mrs. Eisler, I was able to identify a time frame for the image by using the photographer’s information. By looking at Baltimore City directories, which are available online, I was able to find that Bendann Brothers photographers, started by brothers David and Daniel Bendann in 1859, was located at 207 Baltimore Street from 1863 to 1872. This information will help me to further research Mrs. Eisler, and attempt to figure out who she was.

A carte-de-visite of “Mrs. Moses, Lizzie, Oettinger nee Louisa Rosenfelt or Rosenfeld, daughter of Simon Rosenfelt, engaged May 6, 1854 – 1st year of Oheb Shalom cong.” Courtesy of Temple Oheb Shalom, JMM 2004.097.122.

A wonderful resource is an online database called Find a Grave. I was able to find Louisa Oettingers grave! The site lets you search by name and location or by the cemetery itself. It will also often give you the date of birth, death, and sometimes even an obituary, along with information on family members and a photograph of the tombstone. Although many graves are listed, many are not. The site relies on volunteers and information is normally correct but not always. Another good place to look for grave information is which is available at the Baltimore County Public Library and the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry. Most of the grave information collected by the Museum has been added to JewishGen.

Mr. Moses Oettinger, Louisa’s husband. Courtesy of Temple Oheb Shalom, JMM 2004.097.123.

Carte-de-visite of a man and woman, “Mr. & Mrs. Stern, Rachel Rosenfeld, St. Louis.” Courtesy of Temple Oheb Shalom, JMM 2004.097.128.

It is believed this image is Rachel Rosenfeld (1848-1928) the daughter of Simon and Hannah Rosenfeld, of Baltimore. She married Herman Hohenthal (1837-1910) of St. Louis in 1865 at a ceremony officiated by Rabbi Benjamin Szold.

What is interesting about this image is the tax stamp on the back, “Known as The Sun Picture Tax, the government charged a tax on photographs from 1 August 1864 to 1 August 1866. The amount of tax per photograph varied based on cost of the photograph. Tax stamps were most commonly for 1, 2, or 3 cents. The popular cartes des visites (CDV) were among those photographs required to have tax stamps during this time period.  After 1 August 1866, this tax law was repealed.” (source).

This stamp allowed us to date the picture to within a year of when it was taken.

This stamp allowed us to date the picture to within a year of when it was taken.

“Mr. Abraham Brafman, 85 years old, a well-known wholesale clothing dealer, died yesterday at his home, 1609 Bolton street, Baltimore. Before rising last Monday he was stricken with paralysis. He was born in Bavaria and coming to this country engaged in the clothing business. In 1893 he retired, after having been in business for 55 years.

Mr. Brafman’s wife, who died about ten years ago, was, before her marriage, Miss Susan Weglein.
Nine children survive him. They are: Mrs. Julius Gutman, Mrs. I. H. Frank, Mrs. S. Goodman, of Philadelphia; Mrs. Charles Burger, Mrs. Jacob Rosenstock, of Frederick, Miss Julia Brafman and Messrs. Maxx, Julius and Aaron Brafman.” – Baltimore Sun January 11, 1906.

I was able to find Mr. Brafman’s obituary using the Baltimore County Public Library’s ProQuest database, which allows me to research historic Baltimore Sun editions from 1837-1994 as well as 7 other publications. From this I could find the obituary, read about Mr. Brafman’s will, real estate transactions, court hearings, damage to his business from the June 1858 flooding of the Jones Falls and that there was an attempted robbery of his home on Asquith street in May 1870.

Susan Weglein Brafman, wife of Abraham. Courtesy of Temple Oheb Shalom, JMM 2004.097.103.

These are just a few of the ways we begin to research the collection at the museum, and I hope that these may help in researching your own history.


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