AJHS's Gemma Birnbaum on Sponsorship of the Making Modern America Teacher Seminar

In our twenty-ninth year offering Teacher Seminars, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is very pleased, once again, to welcome the sponsorship of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) for Making Modern America: Business & Politics in the Twentieth Century.  

This new seminar explores key moments and people in the history of the United States from the end of World War I to the present through the historical backstory of contemporary political and social movements, business practices, and global flows of people, capital, and ideas.

Gemma Birnbaum, Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical SocietyWe asked the executive director of AJHS, Gemma Birnbaum, about this exciting collaboration.

    What led AJHS to start working with the Gilder Lehrman Institute (GLI)?

    When I first arrived at AJHS, I knew I wanted to expand the work we were doing in K–12 education and bring our extensive collections directly into classrooms. GLI immediately came to mind, as I’d not only worked closely with the GLI team at my previous role at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans but also graduated from the Academy of American Studies in Queens, one of the first public schools founded by GLI. Then coincidentally, the opportunity to work together came across the desk of our senior manager for programs and operations, Rebeca Miller, and since then we’ve conducted our first teacher seminars and look forward to more.

    What course did AJHS previously sponsor and what was that experience like for AJHS?

    AJHS was excited to sponsor 2022’s seminar on American Immigration History as well as a special topics session on the activist history of Union Square and its connection to thinkers represented in our collection like Emma Lazarus. The experience was awesome, from the planning and working with the GLI staff and the lead scholar, Dr. Madeline Hsu, to getting to know the teachers in our virtual sessions. Despite coming from a digital learning background, I sometimes worry that the online sessions won’t be as substantive as in-person instruction, but that was not the case here and by the end, I felt like we were truly able to get to know the participants and provide them with the tools they need in their classrooms. I also got a kick out of seeing a few familiar faces from the seminars I’d worked on at the National WWII Museum. It was a bit like a reunion!

    Why is AJHS sponsoring Making Modern America: Business & Politics in the Twentieth Century this summer?

    So much of Jewish history focuses on antisemitism, both in the United States and through the lens of Holocaust and other similarly difficult history—which is incredibly important to study to be sure—but there is much more to Jewish life and history that isn’t just about the hatred experienced and isn’t as well known to many students. Our collections contain items from many American Jewish entrepreneurs, magnates, sports figures, writers, activists, and politicians, and we knew that this topic would be a great way to bring some of the more innovative parts of Jewish American life to students and teachers. Here at AJHS, our motto is “Our History Is Your History,” and this summer’s seminar will aim to explore just that. Teachers will get access to materials related to all of these areas this summer, helping to tell a truly complete history of the Making of Modern America.

    What did you learn from last year that you will be applying to this summer’s collaboration?

    Last year’s seminar was a great reminder that everyone comes into these programs with different experiences, different types of classrooms, and different motivations. Some teachers have many Jewish students, others teach in classrooms where some students have never actually met a Jewish person in real life before, and their only frame of reference is what they might have seen on TV. Providing a variety of primary sources that can help address curiosity around Jewish American life, and that will nicely complement Dr. Margaret O’Mara’s teaching, is going to be our main priority.

    Participants in Making Modern America (and across the Institute’s summer PD programming) have access to Special Topics in History, one of which will be sponsored by AJHS. How do you think AJHS will engage/interact/contribute to this series?

    One of the best parts about the Special Topics in History is getting to have a more in-depth discussion about topics that wouldn’t necessarily fit in a weeklong seminar format and might otherwise be overlooked. Last summer, when we discussed the history of Union Square here in NYC, we were concerned that this very local history might not resonate, but it also gave us an opportunity to look around the country at other centers of activism. Not everyone lives in NYC of course, but every town has a gathering spot that has served as a pulpit and parade route for politicians, artists, and activists, so we were excited to engage local history in this way. For this upcoming summer, we’re taking a different approach, and focusing on Jewish American political activism in the postwar period; much of our collection deals with both individuals and organizations that sought to achieve safety for Jews and other refugees around the world still in peril, as well as advocated for Civil Rights stateside.

    Making Modern America will be held the week of July 31, taught by Margaret O’Mara, Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Chair of American History, University of Washington.

    Learn more and register to attend here.

    GLI will be offering twelve different seminars online this summer from June 26 to August 3, 2023, as part of a full slate of professional development programming offered by the Institute this summer.

    Registration is just $25 per seminar, and you are welcome and encouraged to register for as many seminars as you like.

    Email us at seminars@gilderlehrman.org if you are interested in registering for three seminars or more for special discount codes and offers. Register at the link provided here.

    Each Teacher Seminar includes

    • 3 live scholar Q&A sessions
    • 2 live pedagogy sessions led by Gilder Lehrman Master Teachers
    • 1 live session for open discussion and networking with peers
    • Between 9 and 15 hours of video lectures by leading historians
    • Selected primary sources, lesson plans, spotlights from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, and other classroom-ready resources
    • A certificate confirming completed hours/CEUs for the seminar (upon successful completion of seminar requirements)