Ernestine Rose, a 19th century abolitionist, has been named the Humanistic Jewish Role Model for the Hebrew year 5772 by the national Society for Humanistic Judaism. As such, Rose’s life and values will be the subject of study and events by groups affiliated with the Society over the course of the year, which corresponds to the period between Sept. 28, 2011, and Sept. 16, 2012, in the Gregorian calendar.
Rose, an atheist of Jewish descent, helped pave the way for better known human rights activists like Susan B. Anthony. Rose was born in 1810 in Russia-Poland and died in 1892 in England, and spent many of her most outspoken years based in New York City.
Interestingly, though, Rose’s largely under-appreciated story of activism includes a chapter from Maine.
According to the 1999 book “The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose,” by Carol A. Kolmerten, she was invited to speak before an antislavery group in December 1855 in Bangor, where local Rev. G.B. Little publicly opposed her arrival. He wrote in the newspaper the Bangor Mercury that Rose, as a “female atheist,” was “more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrance” than anything else on Earth. Rev. Little accused her of “ribald blasphemies.”
The good news is, the competing newspaper, the Bangor Whig and Courier — which would about 45 years later merge with a startup called the Bangor Daily News — came to Rose’s defense, publishing a rebuttal commentary by Rev. Amory Battles. Rose ultimately came and delivered her presentation to the Maine audience, praising those who invited her as champions of free speech.
The dueling newspaper commentaries captured national attention and further galvanized Rose’s base New York City supporters, who at a follow-up event treated the activist to what the book described as “thunders of applause” and a full night of food and toasts after she recalled her Maine ordeal.
Now, as the Humanistic Jewish Role Model for the year, some of the stories and messages from her life are being circulated again. Previous figures used as teaching models by the Society in this way include Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Sigmund Freud.
Here’s what a couple of Society representatives had to say, in statements, about Rose and some of the Rose-related programs that have been held already.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris:
Ernestine Rose is one of our more intriguing Humanistic Jewish Role Models. As many of our members learned of her for the first time, they felt the excitement of discovering a Jewish woman who demonstrated the philosophy and values of Humanistic Judaism long before Humanistic Judaism existed.
David Shafer, who delivered a presentation about the life of Ernestine Rose to the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Fairfield, Conn.:
I was very impressed with her initiative and drive at a time when there were very few opportunities for women to develop their natural gifts… I think that she was helped a lot in her quest for women’s rights and social justice by her lifelong atheism. She felt that the only way any progress could be accomplished towards a better world was through human initiative and actions. A lot of chutzpah didn’t hurt either. Ernestine Rose was remarkably ahead of her time.