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Speakers at the Day of Learning who had personal experiences with the Holocaust shared their family histories and artifacts with the audience.

At the Day of Learning, museum visitors reflect on Richmond’s Jewish history

on February 1, 2019

Although she has been living in Richmond for about 20 years, Margaret Lee had not been aware of the mark her fellow members of the Jewish community have left on the city. In fact, attending last week’s “Day of Learning” at the Richmond Museum of History, a gathering commemorating the Holocaust, was the first time she had engaged with the stories of other local Jewish people, she said. The gathering was one of the events held in conjunction with the museum’s “Pioneers to the Present” exhibit, which aims to shed light on the stories of the city’s relatively small Jewish community.

What Lee saw left her pleasantly surprised but also nostalgic. “I am just learning about all the wonderful merchants. I am just learning that they were Jewish and that they had something to do with the prosperity of the McDonald Avenue,” she said while looking at a map displaying the businesses that used to occupy one of the largest streets of this city—places like Dorett’s Dress Shop, Cow-wow Restaurant, Little Harry’s Deli and about 30 more. “I always wondered what happened. Some of these buildings are beautiful architecturally and now they are empty, boarded up,” she said.

The museum at 400 Nevin Avenue is vibrant, well-kept and serves as a place that honors and protects memories—and the staff hope the exhibit will benefit more residents like Lee. Melinda McCrary, the executive director of the museum, said that although the contribution the Jewish community has made to Richmond is vast, their historical struggles and contributions remain unknown to most residents. “With fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors still here to share experiences, the time is now to capture their stories and disseminate them to the greater public,” she said.

Richmond’s Jewish population represents a modest fraction of the 350,000 Jewish people in the Bay Area, acording to a study by The Jewish Community Federation.

There are about 160 members of the Richmond synagogue Temple Beth Hillel, but neither the temple, nor Jewish advocacy groups in the area, have data about the number of other Jewish residents who are not affiliated with religious organizations.

“What I learned doing this exhibit is that the information that people have about the Jews in this area are bad stereotypes,” McCrary said. She aims to provide at least an introduction to the culture.

McCrary also expressed concerns about anti-Semitic acts like the shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue last October and marches by far right activists both in Berkley and across the country.

According to the 2018 annual report from the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the United Statesrose 57 percent in 2017, the most significant rise in a single year since the league started recording them.

“A new wave of anti-Semitism is taking over the United States. While it may not be new, it is just recently waving its ugly head again,” McCrary said.

The Day of Learning attracted about 50 people, a large number of them belonging to the Jewish community. Rabbi Dean Kertesz of Temple Beth Hillelencouraged people to be active and likened the Holocaust to the current political climate. “Whenever we hear that politicians use racism as a political tactic or defame fellow citizens for who they are, we are walking down the same path,” he said in a speech.

Even though many in the crowd were familiar with the hardships of Jewish history, they could not remain unmoved. When Kertesz said in his speech that we should remember “how Jews lived and not how they died,” it left some of them with tears in their eyes.

Other audience members shared the rabbi’s concerns. Children’s librarian Sheila Dickinson, who has worked in the city for 12 years, said she feels what a pressing political time this is. “I work with all the kids and families in the area, and and I’m moved by the fascism that is in the country now,” she said. She was there to educate herself about a community that she fears might become unjustly persecuted again in the future.

Speaking later by phone, Rabbi Yitzchok Wagner, the co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of Richmond, pointed out that events like this are meaningful. “Lack of knowing can bring to adverse thoughts and feelings towards people until you actually get to know them,” he said, while adding that, in his experience, the relationship between Jewish community and other residents of Richmond is good. 

“It is one of the things that people like about Richmond the most—the diversity,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt who gave a short speech at the beginning of the event.

The exhibition, as well as more discussions, meetings and lectures, will continue until the end of June. Admission is free to the public.

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