Twenty-eight handcrafted dolls that were used for more than 50 years as teaching tools about American democracy and tolerance are now on display in the atrium of the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
Between Jan. 15 and March 17 they will be the subject of “Identify the Dolls,” a contest open to anyone who visits the exhibit (see sidebar).
The dolls were created in the early 1950s by Ruth Cecil Weeks, an active member of B’nai B’rith Women — which became Jewish Women International in 1995 — from Independence, Mo.
Weeks sculpted the faces with clay, and designed and sewed their clothes. Her husband, James, assembled the wires and wood that held the figurines together.
The dolls — which range in height from eight to 12 inches — represent a diverse range of American and foreign leaders and humanitarians: from John. F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. to Anne Frank, Helen Keller, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Members of some 90 BBW chapters made copies of the dolls as teaching aids in the organization’s Dolls for Democracy Project.
They were introduced in the early 1950s, in an era long before computers and smart boards filled American classrooms.
BBW members visited public and private schools, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and nursing homes, using prepared scripts to explain the characters’ roles in history.
At one time there were 35 chapters of BBW in what was then the catchment area of the Greater MetroWest federation. Lois Kaish of Springfield was an active member of her hometown chapter and wound up storing 50 of the dolls.
“I thought they were too valuable to just sit in my garage,” she told NJ Jewish News on Dec. 4 as she dropped off her donation at the offices of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, on the Aidekman campus.
She said she felt compelled to give the dolls to JHS “because of the aging population in our chapters and because as of two years ago this program was no longer being done in our communities.”
“As many women started going back to work the volunteer pool for the Dolls for Democracy Project started to diminish,” said Sue Tomchin, editor of Jewish Woman, JWI’s magazine. “And children are now much more reliant on technology,” she told NJJN in a Dec. 5 phone interview.
Tomchin told NJJN she was unaware of any current Dolls for Democracy programs, “but occasionally we get requests for specific dolls from our archives. We have 50 to 60 of them in storage, and we are always looking for more. There are probably several hundred out there, and people find them occasionally when they are cleaning out their parents’ closets.”
“The dolls I had needed to be somewhere where people could see them and learn the lessons they were intended to teach,” said Kaish as she presented them to JHS executive director Linda Forgosh.
Forgosh was eager to oblige. Within minutes of receiving them, she helped Kaish unwrap the carefully protected figures — among them models of Benjamin Franklin, Pope John XXIII, Jackie Robinson, Danny Kaye, Emma Lazarus, Jonas Salk, former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, and Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.
They are now on display in a series of cases outside the JHS offices. Another set of the dolls is on permanent display at the Jewish Community Archives of Greater Kansas City.
In 2011, 25 of the dolls were exhibited at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, the hometown he shared with their creator.
Also among the collection are replicas of three women created in commemoration of the United States bicentennial in 1976.
They are: Abigail Minis, a wealthy woman who helped finance the American Revolution and one of the first Jews to settle in Savannah, Ga., in 1773; Elizabeth Freeman, one of the first black slaves in Massachusetts to win a lawsuit in 1770 and a declaration that slavery was illegal in her state; and Sybil Ludington, who rode through 40 miles of upstate New York on horseback, alerting people that British troops were heading their way. Her name may be forgotten, even though she doubled the mileage of Paul Revere’s famous ride through Massachusetts two years earlier.
The three dolls were presented to then-President Gerald Ford during the B’nai B’rith Women’s convention in Washington, DC.
Kaish was one of several hundred delegates at that gathering. “Much to our surprise, Ford received us in the Blue Room. It was a very exceptional moment. I was in awe. Regardless of political leanings you need to be in awe of being in the presence of the president of the United States. It was a very proud moment.”