A Pioneer of YJ: Remembering Yocheved Herschlag Muffs

Reposted from the Jewish Women’s Archive by Diane M. Sharon.

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.

Family and Education

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.

Early Career

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.

Anti-Defamation League

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.

Year Course 1971 Reunites 50 Years Later

By Fanny Korman, Cyndi Schoenbrun, and Steven Rubinstein Year Course 1971

On September 22, 1971, over 70 Young Judaeans boarded an El Al charter plane with one carry-on and one large piece of luggage enroute to Israel to begin their Year Course program. They landed in Ben Gurion the next day, on September 23. Their luggage, shipped by boat, took over one month to reach them at Beit Riklis their new home on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem.

Almost exactly to the date by the Hebrew Calendar and 50 years later on September 12, 2021, 59 of our chaverim and madrichim living in 8 different time zones from California to Israel connected on Zoom to kick off a joyful celebration of this very special anniversary! Then and now, Young Judaea Year Course program is one of the top gap-year programs in Israel, run by the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States.

The 1971-72 group was to be the last single track Year Course.  It was a relatively peaceful and unique year, only four years since the 6-Day War and two years before the Yom Kippur War. Located on Mt Scopus, Beit Riklis was located across the road from the new campus being built for Hebrew University. Members of that Year Course had access to numerous locations that are only visited these days by a select few and under heavy guard. They were able to freely travel to and from Beit Riklis to the Old City through East Jerusalem; the trek by foot to the Kotel through the Arab quarter was a popular activity on Shabbat. For example, this lucky group was able to visit the Dome of the Rock and explore the site and visit the mosque without any concerns for their safety.

The celebration began with a message from Joe Wernick, who just celebrated his 80th birthday and was Year Course director at that time. He was followed by Adina Frydman, CEO of Young Judaea Global, who shared some warm remarks. Year Course participants were fortunate to be joined by madrichim Buzzy Gordon, Bonne Reiser and Alan Hoffman.

The event started with a slide show compiled from photos taken by and sent in by Year Course chevrei; roommates, friends, classmates, involved in educational activities, tiyulim, working on kibbutz and moshav, holiday celebrations and of course chofesh – life as it happened – during the 10-month period when this group resided in Israel, not as tourists but as students and members of a community.

A special commemorative segment paid tribute to the six chaverim that passed away sometime within the past 40 years. The connection to each other and the deceased chaverim was felt deeply as was demonstrated by the moving comments made following the tribute.

Everyone took part in breakout rooms, taking the opportunity to figure out where the last 50 years has gone and more importantly recalling the impact Year Course had on their lives then and now. The opportunity to schmooze informally was truly a highlight. It left this group of Judaeans clamoring for more time to reminisce, remember and reconnect.

It took many volunteers and a big effort to make this event happen successfully. All who participated in the planning and creation of the various aspects for the celebration gave of their time with love and gratitude for the privilege of having attended Year Course 1971-72. Plans are now being made for follow up events to continue celebrating the 50th anniversary year throughout the next few months!

Montana Torah Finds a New Home at CYJ-Texas

Camp Young Judaea-Texas is now in possession of their very own Torah, and it’s from Butte, Montana! Thanks to the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that among many things, works to find homes for ritual objects that are no longer in use, CYJ-Texas was given the incredible gift of a Torah to use throughout the summer and on special occasions like the recent bar mitzvah of Jack Wallace that took place at camp. Through work with the staff of JCLP in her previous position at UJA-Federation NY, Young Judaea Global CEO, Adina Frydman, was able to help make this ‘shiduch’ between the organization and CYJ-Texas. One closed congregation’s Sefer Torah has now became part of the story of the vibrant camp community that is CYJ-Texas. The connection with this congregation has made it possible to continue the mesorah (tradition) for another generation to come!

Jack Wallace reads from the donated Torah at his Bar Mitzvah at CYJ-Texas on October 2, 2021.

We Were All Once Refugees, My Gesher Reflections

Written by Liberty Lebos, 2021 Leaders of Tomorrow for Young Women Award Winner. This award is issued by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America

It was in the gift shop at the African Women’s Refugee Collective, Kushinate, that the feeling of what Tikkun Olam is really hit me. As I wandered around the shelves, I noticed that the words, “We Were All Once Refugees” were printed on all of the tags of the purses, baskets, and other crocheted items. Money from the items that are sold is used to support and help new immigrants, and this slogan made me think about how everyone, including Jews, have always needed to help each other.

You might think I would feel the most Jewish when I was standing at the Western wall putting in my prayer next to a hundred Jewish women doing just the same, but really it was underneath the Old City along the Kotel walls that I felt most connected to my Judaism. In the tunnels beneath modern life, I felt keenly aware and grateful of my ancestors who traveled along these walls so many thousands of years ago.

During my tour of the Kotel tunnels, my group and I were fortunate enough to view a new archaeological discovery that had only been released to the public three days before our arrival. The Corinthian fountains mounted on the wall were especially interesting to me, and I was so fascinated by the many things that we are still discovering today. Afterwards, when we made our way through the rest of the tour, we were brought to the holiest place I ever stepped foot in: A section of the western wall that had been the closest in proximity to the old Temple, the Holy of Holies.

One of the many ways that I found to connect me to my Israel experience and Jewish identity was spending time with the people I was with and doing this journey with them. Whether it was floating in the Dead Sea or hiking up Masada at 5am to get to the top just in time for sunrise, doing it with these friends by my side made this trip so incredible. Having Jewish peers is strongly important to me as we help each other reflect the values of our faith.

But it was in the everyday interactions with different kinds of Israelis that I feel like I understood what it means to help repair the world as a good Jew. When I thought about the phrase, “We Were All Once Refugees,” it brought home to me the journey that my ancestors made through the Negev to the Holy Land, through the Diaspora, to my family, and this opportunity to walk the lands of so many that have come before me. None of them could have done it alone. We all receive help along the way, and we all have to help each other. My time in Israel is something that I will never forget and though I hope to return some day, I bring the lesson of looking for ways to repair the world and help others no matter where I go.

Reinvigorated with a New Sense of Self on Gesher

Written by Sabrina Skolnick, 2021 Leaders of Tomorrow for Young Women Award Winner. This award is issued by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America

My first trip to Israel was with my family at the age of six. Given my young age, I was not able to understand or absorb the special history, tradition, culture, and rich heritage of the Jews from all over the world who built the land of Israel from a Zionistic dream. Visiting Israel as a young adult of 17, knowing that my grandparents wanted to live there after surviving the camps, knowing that my great uncle fought in the Irgun, Israel has become so much more than another country. It is my homeland. From the memories of laughter to learning from the top of Masada to exploring King David’s tunnel with some of my closest friends, my Gesher experience has reinvigorated me with a new sense of self, further connecting me with my Jewish identity.

Although I was raised in a conservative Jewish household with traditional values, Judaism felt distant to me, almost as if I had yet to experience the full extent of what it means to be Jewish. So, when I boarded the plane headed towards Israel, I took a step back because I knew that this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. This summer, I felt connected to something larger than myself. I formed real friendships that will hopefully last me a lifetime, and I went to activities led by madrichim who genuinely cared about creating a positive Israel experience. Every Havdalah, I would look around to see the faces of teens my age with similar stories mesmerized by the community we had built together, while we sang our hearts out to the timeless songs of Young Judaea. This trip to Israel provided a break from the stresses of my life (SAT/ACT exams, the college application process, etc.) while offering the appeal of a “safe space,” free of judgment, where — after 18 months of lockdown — I could “just be Sabrina.”

The daily rigorous activities on the Gesher Tour provided us, as individuals and as a group, with joy and emotional nourishment, with kinship and friendships, with relaxation and intellectual stimulation. From daily hiking to visiting many historically significant sites, some of my favorite memories were formed during the not-so-physical activities such as a deep conversation with someone I had just met by the campfire, to the day we spent at Aqua Kef, feeling free in our homeland. This trip expanded my mind, inviting new outlooks and perspectives that no textbook could teach me. On the whole, I have taken away a newfound sense of pride, understanding that being a Jewess means representing and supporting Israel and my history, taking a stand whenever possible against antisemitism.

We spent the last week in Tel Aviv, realizing that our trip was almost at its end. Nevertheless, it was filled with laughter and excitement. On the last night, there was a tone like no other. Unanimously, we were exhausted but emotionally content with our journey, so we celebrated our experience with each other, and thus I can only describe the last night as a perfect end to a perfect trip. Coming off from the plane from Israel was a surreal experience for me; now, I can say wholeheartedly I have never felt so connect to my Jewish faith.