Just weeks before the start of Passover, Jews from the Conservative movement got a vivid reminder of their ancestors' many trials and tribulations as they perused a number of ancient treasures — among them royal diadems and golden statuettes — culled from an empire that had kept the Jewish people in bondage.
On Sunday at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Conservative Movement Leadership Council brought together almost 750 Jews from more than 50 synagogues in the region for "Exodus and Egypt" — an afternoon spent wandering throughout the institute's smash-hit exhibit "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs."
Visitors got the chance to tour the popular display, then partake in one or more simultaneous events being offered as well: a lecture by Dr. Sharon Keller of the Jewish Theological Seminary on ancient Egypt and the Jewish people; the singing of Passover songs led by area cantors; and a number of children's activities, such as arts-and-crafts projects related to the upcoming Passover holiday.
A considerable amount of planning preceded this extended museum visit. Some 18 months ago, the movement's leadership council began to discuss ways to bring people together who represent or participate in Conservative-movement groups, from summer camps and day schools to Men's Clubs and Sisterhoods.
The council "started to talk about a vision of what the movement can provide," said Rabbi Stephen C. Wernick of Adath Israel in Merion Station, who's also the president of the Rabbinical Assembly's Mid-Atlantic Region.
The goal was to find a way of incorporating the four pillars of Conservative philosophy — study, family, community and Jewish living — into a single event, said Wernick. The council decided to "use King Tut as a programmatic centerpiece."
The timing was incredibly fortunate, he added, with Passover approaching.
During her lecture, Keller, assistant professor of Bible at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary and scholar of biblical literature and ancient Egyptian art, discussed how the exhibit and Egypt inform the Jewish experience. "There are no material remains that point to any Israeli presence or exodus from Egypt," she noted.
And though there are no such archaeological artifacts, the Torah's account is vivid: "We're left with an impression of Egypt.
"Egypt really [was] the breadbasket of that part of the world," explained Keller, due to the annual inundation of the land by the Nile. In time, it also became a land of servitude.
The difference between the artifacts in the exhibit and the Torah is a stark one, she said: "In Egypt, Pharaoh is supreme; in the Bible, God is supreme."
'A Perfect Time'
For some visitors, the treasures of Tutankhamun were not a new experience. Al and Patti First of Rydal had seen the exhibit in Cairo itself, though the Franklin Institute exhibit was "more artistically laid out," noted Patti.
Some came from significant distances. Flora Berkun traveled from Pittsburgh to attend with her children and grandchildren. "It's a perfect time — two weeks before Pesach," she said, noting that she likes "the Egyptian mystique" expressed in the artwork.
The artifacts are emblematic of what the Jewish people were struggling against, she added — the mighty Egyptian empire.
Though the empire of Egypt is all part of ancient history, the Jewish saga continues on, according to Wernick. In ancient Egypt, "everything comes from a tomb," noted the rabbi. "For us, everything comes from Torah."
In addition to the educational and contemplative elements of the day's events, four cantors from area congregations held a session for children and one for adults, teaching traditional and contemporary Passover songs.
"Everybody loves to sing," said Cantor Stephen Freedman, chair of the Delaware Valley Region of the Cantor's Assembly, and cantor at Temple Sinai in Dresher. "There's a spirit you can create through music."
While most of the program proved passive — listening to lectures and looking at antiquities — the singing brought people together in a more active capacity, offered Freedman.
The entire event, said Michael Weingram, a past president of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Jewish Men's Clubs, "is a way of bringing people together to see what [the movement] is about." He added that the day was valuable for the opportunity to learn what other groups within Conservative Jewry were doing.
"There's a need for this kind of connection" in the movement, added Patti First. She saw old friends at the exhibit, and she and her husband are looking forward to more such events.
Such success has the leadership searching for more opportunities in the city for programs on which they can build Judaic content, said Wernick: "We're already looking toward next year — and the year after."