On Religious Liberty

Posted on September 27th, 2018 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

I recently had a conversation about the separation of church and state with an acquaintance.

 I was telling him about the voter pledge cards that we’re using at the Museum and at my congregation, Baltimore Hebrew, and several other synagogues, churches, and now a mosque, throughout the region. This acquaintance of mine was surprised at the use of the cards. He wondered aloud if we should be engaging in such activities. He asked me if we weren’t crossing the line between church and state. At the time I told him “the separation of church and state means that the state can’t tell you how to church. It doesn’t mean the church has to pretend the state doesn’t exist.” I assured him that as long as we—either the congregation or the Museum—are ensuring that we are not telling people for whom to vote, only that they should vote for the candidate(s) of their choice, we are completely within the bounds of what we may do as non-profits. What I didn’t get into with him at the time is that not only are the 501(c)3 designations safe, we are tying into a long history of Jewish congregations and organizations celebrating and bolstering American democracy.  

These high holy days, I was reminded of that long tradition and decided to explore it. As I sat and stood and sat and stood beside my mother in the sanctuary that has been my religious home my entire life, one prayer stood out to me this year.  

“We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion. 

Deepen our love for our country and our desire to serve it. Strengthen our power of self-sacrifice for our nation’s welfare. Teach us to uphold its good name by our own right conduct.  

Cause us to see clearly that the well-being of our nation is in the hands of all its citizens; imbue us with zeal for the cause of liberty in our own land and in all lands; and help us always to keep our homes safe from affliction, strife, and war. Amen.” 

(This is from the older Reform Machzor, though there is a version of it in the Mishkan Tefillah, the prayerbooks adopted by the Reform movement over the past several years.) 

Not only did the synagogue (church) not pretend there was no state, we integrated a prayer for the state’s well-being into the liturgy of our holiest day. Like I said before, separation of church and state doesn’t mean non-acknowledgment between them.   

In the few days in the office between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I found myself gazing at my framed copy of the “See America” poster of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. (I’ve written about the development of this poster before.) As I re-read the information on the poster about the creation of the LSS, it got me to thinking about the history of the Jewish participation in the American experiment, and, necessarily, that led me to the phrase “religious freedom.”  

The poster says, “The Baltimore Jewish community built its first synagogue in 1845. Made possible by the 1826 Maryland Jew Bill, the building stands as a reminder that the thread of religious freedom is woven into the fabric of the city, the state, and the United States.”

In the same way that “church and state” seemed to have morphed for this acquaintance of mine, it seems to me that “religious freedom” no longer means what it once did.  

Today, it seems “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” is used as an excuse to descriminate. But for my—and many of your—ancestors, “religious freedom” was the opposite of discrimination. It was the ticket to full Jewish participation in their new, American home.  

This was made very clear when we published our booklet “The ‘Maryland Jew Bill’ And the Struggle For Equal Treatment Under the Law.” While Amending America was here, we created this facsimile of many pages of our artifact, the 1819 pamphlet “Sketch of Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818, on what is commonly called The Jew Bill.”

While working on that pamphlet, I read several early nineteenth-century essays in defense of religious freedom. The essayists included no less than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and the arguments suggested that the Enlightenment ideal of religious liberty insists that Jews should not be prohibited from full participation in our democratic process because of their religion. It was a non-Jew’s commitment to this ideal that led to the passage of what is known as the Jew bill here in Maryland. That legislation allowed, for the first time, Jews to hold public office— a role that had previously been unavailable due to the requirement of a Christian oath for public office.  

Let me repeat that: religious freedom demanded of nineteenth-century Americans that Jews not be prohibited from full participation in our democracy. In case you doubt the importance of that concept to our Jewish American foremothers and forefathers, I’d like to share this image:

This discovery of mine may be very familiar to any of you who grew up in a Reform Jewish home. This page spread is near the back of the Union Haggadah Revised—the Passover Haggadah published by the Reform movement in the 1923.

I recently came upon the page and was fascinated by this statue of religious liberty, paired as it was with the lyrics to America. The pedestal says “Religious Liberty. Dedicated to the People of the United States of America by the Order B’nai Brith and Israelites of America.” The figure appears to be a female warrior, sheltering a young boy and accompanied by an eagle. With a little research I realized I’d seen the statue before, as it is now in front of National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I further learned that this Lady Liberty holds the U.S. Constitution in her left hand, and the boy she protects carries a lantern representing religion. The eagle at her feet is clutching a serpent in its talons—a metaphor for democracy defeating tyranny. She was installed on Thanksgiving day 1876 as part of the commemoration of the country’s centennial.  

With all of these historic ideals, symbols, and realities of “religious freedom” resonating in my mind, contemporary news stories seem to be assaulting and insulting this Lady Liberty I never realized I knew.  

I recently saw an article about the baker at the center of the cake religious liberty case. For those of you who may have missed it, a commercial baker in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The couple sued. The case went to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights commission showed hostility to the baker based on his religious beliefs, since the baker claimed religious freedom was the reason he had chosen not to make the cake. Fairly recently, I saw that the same baker had again refused to bake a cake, this time for a transgender woman, once again claiming religious freedom as his defense.  

Especially now, as we celebrate Sukkot, that festival of radical hospitality, I pray the Religious Liberty our co-religionists put on a pedestal is returned to her former glory. She was the protector of the stranger, the guardian of the rights of citizenship and civil society. I do not believe she would take up arms to protect anyone’s right to refuse to interact with those who do not share their religious beliefs.  

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Symbolic Gesture or Big Deal?

Posted on April 20th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is written by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I wanted to devote this month’s JMM Insights to one of the oldest documents in our collection – a short pamphlet with a very long title: “Sketch of the Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818 on What is Commonly Called The Jew Bill.”

I bring this document to your attention not only because it will soon turn 200 years old, but also because it is so intertwined with the story of our current exhibit, Amending America: The Bill of Rights and the launch last week of the JMM-commissioned book on the history of our community, On Middle Ground: A History of Jewish Baltimore.

Let me begin by explaining what the pamphlet is and what it isn’t. The “Sketch” is a polemic, an argument in favor of the passage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was intended to ameliorate the impact of the provision in the Maryland State Constitution of 1776 requiring a “Christian oath” for anyone holding public office (civil or military).

The Jew Bill failed to pass in 1818, but Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown and his allies in the House of Delegates were not giving up.

The pamphlet consolidated the case for passage, including newspaper editorials from such diverse places as Natchez, Mississippi and Danville, Virginia condemning “Religious Intolerance” in Maryland, as well as letters of support from such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the great American political tradition, it also veers into the partisan, taking a shot at the Federalist Party for its nearly uniform opposition to the bill.

While this is a fascinating document, it is NOT the Jew Bill. The Museum does not currently own an original copy of the legislation that receives final passage in 1826 (though some members of our Board are still hunting for the possibility that the document exists and could be put on loan to us).

Dr. Eric Goldstein of Emory University, co-author of our new book, On Middle Ground, will be coming to JMM on May 9th to discuss his research on the Jew Bill in the course of writing the opening chapter of the book.

The program is called “Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historic Context.

Without giving away everything that Eric will say (I do want you to come to the program or at least read the book), I would simply point out that Eric found ample evidence that the claims of disability and exclusion attributed to the “Christian oath” provision have been greatly exaggerated – that the rule was not rigorously enforced and that there were relatively easy work-arounds for those wishing to serve.

So was the passage of the Jew Bill just a symbolic gesture or was it a big deal? 

Working at the National Archives I ran into this sort of question often. After all, King George III had issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be “in rebellion” in August, 1775 and sent armies to North America to suppress the revolution… so how significant was the much belated Declaration of Independence eleven months later? As our current exhibit points out, our vaunted FIRST amendment was actually the third article of amendment when it came out of Congress, and was only promoted to first place when the first two amendments failed to be ratified.  Lincoln put so many restrictive clauses into the Emancipation Proclamation that it fell well short of “freeing the slaves.”. He even went so far as to declare it a “war measure” rather than a charter of freedom. Are all these documents over-rated? Or is there something else at work?

I recently listened again to a 2013 interview with Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lonnie responded to a reporter’s question by saying:

The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that’s so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

I find myself echoing Lonnie’s sentiment with respect to the Jew Bill. Maryland was not an environment of horrendous religious oppression in 1818 (nor was it a paradise of tolerance after the bill’s passage in 1827). In many ways, the Jew Bill was a symbolic gesture, having limited practical impact beyond facilitating the political ambitions of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting.  But sometimes, symbolic gestures are genuinely a big deal, moving, even if slightly, the long arc of the moral universe.

In conjunction with Amending America, we have developed a very small highlights brochure of the “Sketch.”  Pick it up at the Front Desk on your next visit to the Museum, while supplies last.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

How Many Degrees of Separation?

Posted on September 7th, 2017 by

A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

Over the holiday weekend, my husband and I went “Biking Beyond Borders,” meaning we biked outside of the state, north of the Maryland Dixon-Mason Line.  We found ourselves in the southern part of Pennsylvania on what is now the York County Heritage Rail Trail, which connects to a similar hike/bike trail in Northern Maryland down to Baltimore named the Torry C. Brown Rail Trail (also known as the  NCR Trail or the Northern Central Railroad trail).

While on the trail we came across the Howard Tunnel which I learned has been in operation since 1838 and is the second oldest tunnel rail bridge that exists in the United States.

Howard Tunnel

Howard Tunnel

Originally constructed by the York and Maryland Line Rail Road, the Northern Central Railroad was a subsidiary of the B & O Railroad.  It formed a critical link in the north-south line assembled by the Northern Central Railway.  As we kept riding, I was determined to go back and find the degrees of separation between this very cool tunnel and my work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Have you ever played the game to see how many degrees of separation?

First Degree

One of the founding members of the B & O Railroad was Solomon Etting, an early businessman and civic leader in Baltimore.  He lived in York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania until he moved to Baltimore in 1791. Etting was active in the Jewish communities in York, Lancaster and Baltimore. He trained as a shochet, or kosher butcher, in 1782, possibly the first native-born American to do so.

Solomon Etting

Solomon Etting

In 1801, Solomon and his uncle purchased the “Jew’s Burying Ground,” the cemetery used by Baltimore’s Jewish community.  At the time, there were not any incorporated congregations, so they purchased this land as individuals. The Etting Cemetery is located on North Avenue.

Etting Cemetery

Etting Cemetery

Etting also lobbied extensively to end Maryland’s exclusion of Jews from elected office. He and his father-in-law Bernard Gratz petitioned the Maryland House of Delegates in 1797, asking that Jews “be placed upon the same footing with other good citizens,” but were rebuffed that year. He submitted a similar petition in 1802, and again in 1824, which ultimately led to the final passage of the “Jew Bill” which was passed in 1826.

The Jew Bill, JMM1987.082.001

The Jew Bill, JMM1987.082.001

Second Degree

I searched even more to see what kinds of things were in our collections about trains and the railroad. One of the first things I found was some tickets from the B & O Railroad. This string of tickets from Baltimore & Ohio Railroad printed as a souvenir traces the history of the B&O Railroad from 1830 to 1889. These 13 tickets represent stages in the development of the B&O railroad.


B & O Railroad Ticker Souvenirs, JMM1991.147.034

B & O Railroad Ticker Souvenirs, JMM1991.147.034

My favorite object that I found was a wonderful comic book published by Hochschild Kohn called Rails Across America.  As soon as I saw it I wanted to break out my crayons!

Hochschild Kohn Book, JMM 2000.150.001

Hochschild Kohn Book, JMM 2000.150.001

A Winning Game!

The game was fun and as you can see, our little bike ride over the holiday weekend, was really only two degrees of separation from my work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  Next time, see if you can play the game too!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland