Monday, October 29, 2018

Open Letter to President Trump

I have submitted this as a letter to the editor to two Atlanta-area newspapers, but I would like to share it here as well.  The horrific shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday morning, October 27, haunted me. I was filled with sadness and rage. This morning, I learned that it was the worst act of anti-Jewish violence in American history. I was moved to write from my heart the following morning. Words can lead to violence, but perhaps they can lead to healing as well.  In that spirit, I will follow this post with another one soon about our newest exhibit, Enduring Tension: (En)countering Antisemitism in Every Age.

This rainbow witnessed on the night of my grandmother's death is a source of inspiration for me in times of trouble.

October 28, 2018

Dear Mr. President,

Again, our nation is in mourning for eleven people cut down in their house of worship. The killer’s motivation was well-documented. Yes, he is an antisemite. But he was moved to take action by an acute fear of refugees, a fear undeniably stoked by you and your supporters.

Since you began your presidential campaign, I have heard a lot about “law and order.” You claim to care about the safety of the American people above and beyond all others in the world. Yet, in this moment in America, I have never felt less safe. I commend you for your quick condemnation of this most recent mass shooting, and I agree that gun safety is not the central issue at hand. However, safety for your beloved American citizens must not depend on their ability to employ armed guards at their houses of worship every Sabbath. It is time for you to take responsibility for the power of your rhetoric.

Yes, fear brings people to the polls. Fear of immigrants, whom you’ve characterized as criminals, rapists, terrorists disguised as families fleeing foreign wars, this fear may secure your party’s power. You have the power, and you are unlikely to lose it as long as people feel threatened by forces you have carefully portrayed as coming from the outside. But you have unleashed the power of that fear within our borders. You have released a poison into the hearts and minds of Americans, and you must take responsibility. If you care about America, its greatness, and it’s safety, you must acknowledge the power of your words to do more than bring cheering throngs to your rallies. You must acknowledge the power of your words to motivate people to do violence to citizens enjoying America’s most essential freedom. The freedom to worship God on a peaceful October morning.


Adina Langer

Public Historian
Curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University
Jewish American
Mother and Wife
Great-granddaughter of Immigrants Fleeing Antisemitism in Europe

Decatur, GA, USA

Friday, October 26, 2018

Mississippi Revisited

Eleven years ago, I visited Mississppi for the first time. I was working as a curatorial assistant at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, and I chose Jackson as my location to staff on our 25-state National Tour because my Oberlin friend Sarah was working there as an oral historian for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

Even then, my understanding of Mississippi history, and my sense for the importance of the Jewish pursuit of Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world") intertwined. As a thirteen-year-old bat mitzvah, I had written a "hero report" about my father's cousin, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. Schwerner was killed, along with fellow CORE organizers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, by the Ku Klux Klan outside Philadelphia, Mississipi. The young men had been sent to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, where they had met with church leaders to organize a "Freedom School" a month prior. Freedom Schools were designed to help Mississippi's disenfranchised black community acquire the skills necessary to pass the discriminatory literacy tests required by the state for voter registration. Mickey Schwerner was 24 years old when he was killed.

I was 24 years old in 2007, and I found the quiet timelessness of Jackson's November landscape spooky. I did not imagine that I would return to the streets of that southern capital where people had battled for the soul of America 40 years before. 

Rotunda of the Old Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi
Earlier this month, an opportunity came to revisit this unsettling place. The Southeastern Museums Conference met in Jackson, and the new Civil Rights Museum steps from the Old Capitol was the professional community's pride and joy. The pre-conference workshop sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums' Education Committee (EdCom) took place at the auditorium shared by the "Two Mississippi Museums," the Civil Rights and History Museums built side-by-side. In fact, the seeds for the creation of this unique partnership between a state museum focused on the breadth of Mississippi's human experiences and a topical museum focused on its greatest challenge were sewn not long after my first visit to the city.

The Civil Rights Museum's dynamic director and team of dedicated educators took us on a rapid tour through its galleries that, thanks to the talents of the staff and the genius of its design team of Hillferty and Associates and Monadnock Media, skirted the line between evocative experience and sensory overload. After coming through the Jim Crow gallery, where monuments to lynching victims stood like trees beneath looming racist images and slogans, I found myself in a space of light and music, right across from Mickey Schwerner's name emblazoned on a memorial wall to the movement's many martyrs.  As "This Little Light of Mine" played in syncrony with ribbons of light along a giant fiber sculpture, I gave in to emotion.  I let the tears run down my cheeks. I was moved by so much that day-- by the stories told in the new museum; by Mississippi's commitment to facing hard truths; by the power of my profession and its dedication to healing the world through evidence-based narrative encounters.
"This Little Light of Mine" Installation at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner's names on the wall

Museums are not places to find all the answers, but they can be places to ask hard questions. They can provide the kind of inspiration that can only be created by humans working together. At the moment, the MHHE stands poised to launch a new traveling exhibit called Enduring Tension: (En)countering Antisemitism in Every Age. At the heart of the exhibit is the notion that Jewish experiences, and Jewish values, can inspire everyone to pursue justice, year after year, in every place and time. In the words of Torah, Parshah Shoftim, "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof." "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." The road is hard, but the journey is necessary.

On our way to Jackson, my colleagues and I stopped at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The effort to remember American lynching victims is monumental and impressive. Above, you can see the ubiquitous memorial water feature. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Immigration and Welcoming

Panel or Refugees and Immigrants at the exhibit opening
Last Thursday, I was thrilled to open our newest exhibit at the MHHE, Refuge or Refual: Turning Points in U.S. Immigration History. Over 150 people came to the opening reception to learn from a panel of immigrants and refugees whose experiences spanned more than 50 years, and to enjoy food representing cultures from around the world including coffee drinks provided by Refuge Coffee, a Clarkston-based company that teaches recent arrivals the skills they need to become entrepreneurs.

Students and professors who wrote essays for Green Card Youth Voices 
A diverse and satisfied crowd at the opening of Refuge or Refusal
Immigrants Stories cases attempting to "compare apples and oranges"
As a university museum, we often joke that the best (and possibly only) way to get students to come to an event is to offer free food. But the relationship between food, welcoming, and being welcomed is deeper and more profound than that. Four of the six stories we tell in our inaugural Immigrant Stories case happen to revolve around food!

This summer, I had the privilege of "breaking bread" with Sarah Litvin, the director of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History As a public history start-up, the Reher Center understands the importance of forging emotional connections between visitors and the stories of the past. According to the center's website, the organization's mission is to "preserve and present stories with universal appeal about immigration, community, work and bread."
Sarah Litvin preparing to break bread in front of the Reher Center in Kingston, New York

Sarah Litvin standing beside a life-size cardboard cutout of Mollie Reher 
Refuge or Refusal provides a chronological and thematic backbone for understanding the complex history of immigration, a story central to the identity of the United States and its role in the world, before, during, and after World War II. As a public historian, however, I am reminded of the many ways in which museum exhibits work best as stepping stones to larger conversations, to encounters among people who might think they are more different from each other than they really are. It has been exciting to watch those conversations happen at the Reher Center through the experiences of my friend, Sarah Litvin, and to have had the opportunity to launch conversations like that at the MHHE.