Tag Archives: Social Activism

Jew of the Week: Lina Morgenstern

The Woman Who Transformed Germany – and the World

Lina Bauer (1830-1909) was born to a wealthy, religious German-Jewish family in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Her parents were noted social justice activists and philanthropists. Among other things, her father built an apartment building to provide housing for destitute workers, while her mother and aunts sought to save women from brothels and give them a proper education. Lina was raised with these important values. At just 18 years of age, amidst the wars of 1848, she established the Penny Society for Poor Pupils to raise money for shoes, clothes, and books for needy children. The organization would continue to operate for the next eighty years, providing countless children with basic necessities. Lina received an extensive education in music, literature, history, and science, and was so passionate about her studies that her mother wanted to take her out of school. Undeterred, Lina continued to study in secret at night. Meanwhile, she fell in love with a poor Polish Jew and married him in 1854 despite her parents’ wishes. The couple moved to Berlin and Lina (now Morgenstern) started to write to help pay the bills. Morgenstern was heavily influenced by the German thinker Friedrich Fröbel, famous for his concept of a “kindergarten” where small children can learn, play, and grow healthy and happy. Fröbel’s preschools did not go very far, and were even suppressed by the Prussian authorities. It wasn’t until Morgenstern co-founded the Berlin Women’s Association for the Advancement of Fröbelian Kindergartens that the idea took off. She chaired the organization for five years, during which time she established eight kindergartens, and a training academy for kindergarten educators. Fröbel’s other students established the first kindergartens in America, and the institution was soon adopted around the world. Morgenstern ultimately left her post to start a new charity: the Volksküche, or “people’s kitchen”. This organization distributed healthy meals to the poor, inspiring the thousands of soup kitchens that operate around the world today. Morgenstern herself opened up ten such kitchens, each serving as many as 2500 people per day! Morgenstern also published a number of important works on feminism, education, health, and child care. Her Das Paradies der Kindheit (“The Paradise of Childhood”) was the kindergarten textbook used globally for decades, and went through seven editions in her lifetime alone. Meanwhile, her Illustrated Universal Cooking Book – a result of all those years working in soup kitchens – was so popular that the Nazis did not include it in their Jewish book-burning list. Among the other organizations that Morgenstern founded are the School for Further Education of Young Ladies, the Berlin Housewives’ Association, the International Congress of Women, and the Berlin Society for Child Protection. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she started a group for the care of soldiers, assisting some 60,000 troops. Morgenstern had become so popular and beloved that the German emperor and empress, Wilhelm and Augusta, visited her and became her patrons. Morgenstern was awarded the Victoria Medal, the Service Cross, and the War Medal. Despite all this, she was a central target for anti-Semites, and their attacks ultimately forced her into bankruptcy and illness. The Empress sent her to San Remo to recover, but it was not enough. Morgenstern left the public sphere and spent her last years writing. Among her final works is a collection of 250 biographies of inspiring women. In those last years she also directed the German Peace Society, advocating for pacifism, arms reduction, and peaceful coexistence. Disbanded by the Nazis, the organization was reformed in 1945, and continues to operate to this day. Morgenstern quietly passed away in 1909, and is buried in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery.

The Secret History of the Star of David

Words of the Week

I only have one real man in my cabinet.
– David Ben-Gurion on Golda Meir

Jew of the Week: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman plays Orthodox girl Rifka in ‘New York, I Love You’

Netalee Hershlag (b. 1981) was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish-American mother and Israeli father with a mix of Russian, Austrian, Romanian, and Polish heritage. The family moved to the US when she was three years old, and young Natalie went to a Jewish day school. She spent most of her teenage years in New York, where she studied dance and ballet. When she was 11, an agent spotted her at a pizza parlour. Shortly after, she was cast alongside Britney Spears in a small role on a Broadway play. The following year, she was cast as twelve-year old orphan Mathilda Lando in the popular film Leon: the Professional. It was then that Natalie decided to use her grandmother’s maiden name, “Portman”. Her incredible performance launched her into stardom. Nonetheless, she made sure to reject all the highly sexualized roles she was being offered, later saying that “there’s a surprising preponderance of that kind of role for young girls. Sort of being fantasy objects for men, and especially this idealized purity combined with the fertility of youth… so I definitely shied away from it.” Indeed, she initially rejected a role in 1999’s Anywhere but Here because of a sex scene, and only accepted it when the script was rewritten without it. For this role, she would win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, Portman wanted to get a proper education, even if it meant “ruining my career”. She skipped the premiere of Star Wars: Episode I (where she played beloved Queen Amidala, young mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker) to study for her high school exams, then enrolled in psychology studies at Harvard. Throughout her time there, she was a noted pro-Israel activist, and also served as Alan Dershowitz’s research assistant. Portman continued graduate studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and has co-authored two scientific papers. (Even in high school she was a scientist, coming up with, and writing a paper titled, “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar”.) Portman was later a guest lecturer at Columbia University, and once said, “I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Thankfully, she is both, with many of her films receiving rave reviews. 2006’s V for Vendetta inspired a whole movement, while 2010’s eye-opening Black Swan won her an Oscar for Best Actress. For the former film she had to shave her head, while the latter required 5 to 8 hours of dance training every day for 6 months. All in all, Portman has acted in, directed, or produced 42 films thus far. Meanwhile, the vegan Portman is an animal rights activist, and has produced an acclaimed film on cruel factory farming. She produced another to depict the plight of gorillas. She has also worked to combat poverty, and served as an Ambassador of Hope for a microlending fund, and an ambassador for Free the Children. She is a member of OneVoice, which strives to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. For her tireless work, last month Portman was awarded the $1 million Genesis Prize (“the Jewish Nobel Prize”), which she said would be donated primarily to support women’s causes. Portman has two children, and though she now lives in LA, has said that “my heart’s in Jerusalem. That’s where I feel at home.”

Words of the Week

Fighting evil is a very noble activity when it must be done. But it is not our mission in life. Our job is to bring in more light.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe