Alumni A Pioneer of YJ: Remembering Yocheved Herschlag Muffs
After illegally immigrating to Palestine, Yocheved Herschlag Muffs began her career of Zionist activism managing a kibbutz kitchen and serving as a messenger during the War of Independence. In 1949 she returned to the United States and began working for Young Judaea, both as a group leader and writing and editing program guides for other leaders. Her life’s work was with the Anti–Defamation League from 1964 to 1993. Over the course of her 36 years at the ADL, Muffs challenged inaccurate depictions of Jews in dozens of major textbooks and reference books, helping to reshape attitudes towards Jews.
During much of her tenure (1964–1990) at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Judith Herschlag Muffs worked with major book publishers to correct inaccuracies in their accounts of Jews and Judaism. Stressing accuracy and objectivity, she succeeded in modifying dozens of textbooks and reference books. Today, inaccurate depictions of Jews have been largely eliminated from educational materials.
Muffs was born Judith Herschlag (Yocheved is her Hebrew name) on August 5, 1927, and grew up in Jamaica, Queens, the youngest of three children. Her father, Alexander Herschlag, and her uncle jointly owned a wholesale bread bakery. Her mother, May (Friedman) Herschlag, a homemaker, died when she was thirteen years old. She attended Hebrew school, which she loved, and where, when she was about eleven years old, Ha-Shomer ha-Dati, a religious kibbutz-oriented Zionist youth group, performed at a holiday celebration. She joined, became religious, and her life was changed.
In early 1946, she dropped out of New York University and went to the Ha-Shomer ha-Dati training farm in upstate New York, where she learned to cook, mix concrete, and milk cows. In 1947, when she was nineteen, she immigrated illegally to British-controlled Palestine, arriving by unconverted World War II troop carrier within a day of the famed Exodus ship, which carried over forty-five hundred survivors from Nazi Europe to Palestine.
She settled with her garin [aliyah group] at a kibbutz, where she eventually became kitchen manager, preparing meals on primus stoves and stretching meager food supplies. The kibbutz fought off several Arab attacks during the Israeli War of Independence in 1947–1949. Judith Herschlag served as a messenger during times of alert, learning to throw grenades and to shoot.
Shortly after her return to the United States in late 1949, she started to work for Young Judaea, an educational movement for Zionist youth. She first served as a group leader and then, beginning in 1954, as national program director. Eventually, she wrote five volumes of “Judaean Leaves,” a program guide for group leaders.
While she worked at Young Judaea, she returned to university studies, attending Queens and Brooklyn colleges. Completing her BA degree in sociology in 1952, she went on to do graduate work in sociology and anthropology at New York University.
In 1959 Muffs went to work for the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, an organization that sets policy, develops courses and objectives, and prepares text materials to implement curricula for Jewish religious schools. There, she was editor of a variety of books and publications, including five volumes of Our Age, a biweekly for high school students.
While at the Anti-Defamation League, Muffs organized and participated in countless interfaith seminars and institutes at Christian seminaries and universities from the 1960s through the 1980s. In the late 1960s she co-produced the ADL–Catholic Archdiocese of New York twelve-part television series The Image of the Jew in Literature and Jews and Their Religion, featuring, among others, Elie Wiesel and Yitz Greenberg. Her study in the 1970s, “Jewish Textbooks on Jesus and Christianity,” appears in the Vatican publication Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue (1988). In the 1980s she was on the task force of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to develop and promote an accurate account of Jews and Judaism in Catholic education.
In 1970, she married Rabbi Yochanan Muffs, Distinguished Service Professor of Bible studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The couple had an apartment in Jerusalem, where they spent part of every year; Muffs had both American and Israeli citizenship.
Muffs was a consultant and a contributor to numerous books, films, and television documentaries on the Holocaust. Her The Holocaust in Books and Films: A Select and Annotated Bibliography has been published in three editions since its initial publication in 1978. She also co-wrote and acted in the ADL presentation of Women vs. the System, produced by ABC-TV.
Muffs considered her work at the ADL a continuation and expansion of her earlier commitments to Judaism, interfaith understanding, and civil rights. At the ADL she served as director of special projects, associate director of interreligious affairs, director of research and curriculum, and associate director of publications. She retired from the ADL in 1993 and continued to consult for them on major projects. In1994 she became a volunteer researcher at The Jewish Museum and was active in the Volunteer Association.
Throughout her entire professional career, Muffs strove to promote love of Judaism among Jewish young people and understanding of Judaism among those of other faiths.
Muffs died on December 31, 2021.