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Magnes collection on Judah L. Magnes, 1870-2004

Judah L. Magnes occupied himself with many endeavors. He was a rabbi; an educator; an organizational leader; an independent-minded social activist and humanist. Although Magnes was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, he achieved national recognition as a leader of the Jewish community in New York and, in 1922, after he moved to Palestine, where he played an important role in the creation of a Jewish university and a Jewish national home. Growing up in the Bay Area, he attended Oakland High School, a public high school, where he became an editor of the school’s biweekly magazine, the Aegis; pitched for the baseball team; and excelled as an orator. At this time, he also showed an interest in Judaism and an independence of mind. After high school, he attended and then graduated from the University of Cincinnati where, as an editor of the university’s annual, he led a protest against the censorship of student criticism of the faculty and against the Spanish-American War. In 1900, Magnes was ordained a Reform rabbi from Hebrew Union College, thus becoming the first native-born Californian who was ordained a rabbi. From 1900 to 1902, he studied at the German universities of Berlin and Heidelberg (he received his Ph. D. from Heidelberg in 1902) and at the renowned Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies), where he was strongly influenced by cultural Zionism.

From 1903 to 1905, Magnes served as a librarian and a teacher of Bible translation at Hebrew Union College. In 1904, he served as the rabbi of Brooklyn’s Temple Israel, which he left because he was thought to be too much of a Zionist and too religiously conservative. He was also thought to have associated too much with revolutionaries. In 1905, he gained recognition as a Jewish leader when he became the chair of the Jewish Defense Association, an organization that was created to aid the Jewish self-defense movement in Russia. From 1905 to 1908, he was the secretary of the Federation of American Zionists and became its most influential spokesman in America and abroad. In 1906, he joined the executive body of a new organization, the American Jewish Committee; he also was concerned with the relief of San Francisco after that year’s earthquake and fire. From 1906 to 1910, he served as an associate rabbi in New York’s Temple Emanu-El, but he resigned from that position after he called for a “counter-reformation” of Reform Judaism. In 1911, Magnes accepted his last post as a rabbi, for the conservative New York congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

From 1909 to 1922, Magnes organized and served as the chairman of the New York Kehillah, a democratic Jewish community organization that was created to aid the revival of Jewish culture and the alleviation of the immigrants’ social and psychic problems. From 1912 to 1920, he organized and led the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. In 1914, the year World War I broke out, he engaged in American Jewish efforts to help European Jews. In 1916, he headed the first relief mission to Eastern Europe for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), and he became deeply involved in relief work for the Jews living in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, an involvement extending after the end of the war. In 1915, Magnes broke with official Zionism (and segments of the American Jewish leadership) over a new emphasis on political goals. In 1917, he condemned the British Balfour Declaration as imperialist opportunism and pleaded the importance of the Arab question. In that same year, he joined with a group of radicals and social reformers in the pacifist movement and became one of its leading spokesmen. He also help found and then direct the National Civil Liberties Bureau (a predecessor of the American Civil Liberties Union).
After 1922, Magnes settled in Palestine. In 1925, he played a leading role in the founding of the Hebrew University; became its first chancellor (1925-1935); and served as its first president (1935-1948). While working for Hebrew University, in addition to recruiting refugee scholars, he also continued to promote the idea of a Jewish cultural renaissance, which was in line with his conception of the university as a center of humanistic studies (and which was also in line with his devotion to spiritual Zionism). His support of the humanities came into conflict with both Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein who wished to stress the natural sciences and medicine. During his entire career, Magnes worked for an Arab-Jewish understanding and remained a dissenter in the Zionist movement, by always arguing for a bi-national state. He was also politically independent, and was often involved in controversy over political pronouncements. In 1939, he was a chairman of the AJJDC’s Middle East Advisory Committee; in 1942, he helped to establish Iḥud [Union], in order to advance a bi-national program. After Magnes’s death, in 1948, the Judah Magnes Foundation was inaugurated to grant scholarships to Arab students who were enrolled at Hebrew University. In 1962, the first Jewish museum in the western U.S. was named after Magnes.
The collection consists of materials collected by the Magnes staff between the early 1960s and the early 2000s that document the life and influence of Judah L. Magnes. Some of these materials are original documents and photographs acquired from Magnes family members and other donors. Other materials in the collection were acquired as a result of years of research and collecting by the Magnes staff. These later items include many photocopies of items from other archives in the United States and Israel. The collection is divided into the following series: 1. Personal; 2. Public Activities; 3. Press, Clippings and Miscellaneous Materials on JLM; 4. Sources on JLM; and 5. Photographs. Series 1 consists of items relating to Judah L. Magnes’ early years in the San Francisco Bay Area, including materials from his high school years in Oakland; items relating to JLM’s college years, including early essays; correspondence with family members; materials on some of the children of Judah and Beatrice Magnes; genealogical materials; items relating to Beatrice Magnes; JLM’s notes and some diaries; and personal documents, including passports, dating from 1912-1941, diplomas (see oversize), and a few bookplates. Series 2 consists of a chronological file of materials relating to JLM’s public activities. Among these materials are correspondence, essays, published and manuscript versions of public addresses, reports from organizations to which JLM contributed his time and efforts, and JLM’s writings (articles and pamphlets). Topics of particular interest in Series 2 include the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, the Kehillah of New York City, Zionism, relief to Europe’s Jews during and after World War I, peace rallies during World War I, Jewish culture and identity, Hebrew University, and the founding of the state of Israel. Series 3 consists of a chronological series of press, clippings, and other materials that discuss the work and influence of Judah L. Magnes. These materials date from 1898 through 2004. Series 4 consists of materials gathered by Magnes staff documenting the various archival and bibliographic sources on Judah L. Magnes available to researchers in the United States and in Israel. Series 5 consists of photographs and photo albums, including photographs of the Magnes family; photographs and portraits of JLM as a child, a young man, and an adult; and group portraits and photographs that include JLM. The photographs date from the 1870s through the 1960s and include images from Oakland, California, New York, Eastern Europe, and Israel. Among the photographs are also pages from two photo albums, one with photographs of the Magnes family in Oakland (circa 1880-1900) and the other showing the childhood home of JLM’s mother Sophie Abrahamson in Filehne, Prussia (Poland). Images from this photo album include street scenes of Filehne and images of the interior and exterior of the town’s synagogue.


3 cartons, 1 box, and 2 oversize folders (3.4 linear feet)

Collection #

BANC MSS 2010/709

Publication Date

July 8, 1870

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