About 15 years ago, a large Reform synagogue in Northern California installed a set of windows in its religious school engraved with the names of some 175 prominent Jews, from biblical figures to famous actors.
One of them, sandwiched between Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, was Judah Benjamin, the most prominent Jewish official in the Confederacy. Benjamin, who enslaved 140 people on a Louisiana sugar plantation, served variously as the Confederate attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state.
The inclusion of Benjamin’s name on the wall didn’t arouse much protest until 2013, about eight years after the installation at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. That was when congregant Howard Wettan listened to a podcast about the Civil War and “I connected the dots.”
Benjamin’s name is now covered in tape and will be replaced, along with two other names, later this year.
Across the country, Confederate monuments have drawn challenges for years from people who say they glorify those who enslaved Black people and fought against the United States. Defenders of the monuments, including some white Southerners, have argued that the monuments are necessary to teach about a painful moment in American history.
But the statues that memorialize those leaders were largely erected long after the Confederacy was defeated, many in the 20th century in support of white supremacy at a time when Southern governments were fighting to maintain legal racial segregation.
Peninsula Temple Sholom did not put Benjamin’s name on the window to glorify white supremacy. “The original intention was to create a wall that was somewhat educational,” said Karen Wisialowski, the synagogue’s chief community officer. “It hasn’t really served that purpose.”
Relatively few memorials to Benjamin exist — as opposed to, say, the plethora of monuments to Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. But Peninsula Temple Sholom was not alone in honoring the Confederacy’s most senior Jewish official.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, according to Jewish historian Shari Rabin, a general American tendency to “paper over” the worst aspects of the Confederacy coincided with a general interest in the war. Jews of that time, she said, celebrated Benjamin in that context, including by publishing a children’s book about him.
In the decades after the Civil War, “there was a general celebration of service, and Jews wanted to write themselves into that history,” said Rabin, a professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin College.
Benjamin’s opponents tarred him for his Judaism, but he never embraced being a Jew, Rabin said. He married a Catholic woman, raised his kids Catholic and was not involved in Jewish institutions. He fled to the United Kingdom after the war.
“By the time of the Civil War, he was pretty far removed from organized Jewish life or personal Jewish commitment,” Rabin said. “The people who were calling Benjamin a Jew were the people who didn’t like him.”
At first, Peninsula Temple Sholom responded to Wettan’s complaint by doubling down on the wall as a teaching tool.
“There was a lot of concern about how we’ve got names literally etched in glass and someone who we think is perfectly fine on the list today we might not think is fine on the list tomorrow,” Wisialowski said. “Should we pull the whole wall down? Should we pull them down and recognize that we might need to make changes in the future as well, if issues come to light that are counter to our values as an organization?”
In the end, the congregation opted to keep the wall but replace three windows bearing what they deemed to be problematic names at a cost of approximately $7,500. Along with Benjamin, the congregation is removing the names of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who died in 1994, and the actor Dustin Hoffman. Both Hoffman and Carlebach have been accused of harassment and assault by several women, in Carlebach’s case posthumously.
The congregation has taken the new windows as an opportunity to include more women’s names. The names will be replaced by those of the biblical figure Deborah, the prominent Jewish musician Debbie Friedman and Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi.
Looking back, Wettan says the years-long process gave the congregation an opportunity to articulate its values and come to a deliberate decision. He said it also showed him how fraught it can be to deal with historical memory and an engraved memorial.
“It’s easy for someone in Northern California to look at the South and say that’s them, not us,” he said. “It’s hard to change. To change, you can’t be afraid to acknowledge that maybe you didn’t get something right the first time.”