Penn Undergraduate Explores Dual Irish and Jewish Identity in the 20th Century

Rebecca Heilweil, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, spent this summer solidifying her future while looking into her past.

In June and July, while working in her hometown of New York City as a contributor for Forbes Magazine’s Technology section, Heilweil, a dual major in history and political science in the School of Arts & Sciences, was also able to begin research into her Irish and Jewish roots.This exploration will serve as the basis for her presentations to the University Scholars and Wolf Humanities Forum undergraduate fellowships and will culminate in her honors thesis this fall.

While in New York, Heilweil uncovered a number of memoirs that shared personal accounts of what it was like to be an Irish Jew in America during the 20th century.

Then in August, she travelled to Dublin to further explore the topic.

Heilweil says that, just as the Irish-American experience differed from the experience of their countrymen who chose to stay in Ireland, the Jewish experience, whether in the United States, the Middle East or Europe, was also different. However, says Heilweil, they all met with similar obstacles.“In the U.S., especially in places like New York, the Irish and Jewish communities faced many of the challenges that current immigrant communities face, such as xenophobia and religious persecution,” Heilweil says. “It’s important that we study those experiences in order to help the populations facing bigotry and barriers today.”

Heilweil visited University College Dublin and the Irish Jewish Museum to gather information from political speeches, newspapers and other primary sources that explored how Irish Jews approached questions of nationalism, Irish identity and Jewish identity in the 20th century.

On one of the original handwritten drafts of the 1937 Irish Constitution, Heilweil saw a tiny note made by an Irish Jesuit official tasked with advising the writing process.“It said that even Jews could enjoy equal rights under this Constitution, a point he seemed to be proud of,” Heilweil says. “That sentiment was not shared by everyone.”

As she continued digging, she came across gut-wrenching artifacts that she says will stay etched in her memory.“I found several heartbreaking letters begging Irish officials to accept Jewish refugees during World War II and Ireland basically said no,” Heilweil says.At the National Library of Ireland, she reviewed the papers of Robert Briscoe, Dublin’s first Jewish mayor who denied the existence of anti-Semitism in Ireland and maintained that his “dual identity” was never an issue. His denial says Heilweil reflects how carefully Irish Jews in public service had to navigate and narrate their experience.

While in Ireland, Heilweil also met the relatives of some of the Irish Jews that she had located in historical documents and took time to visit them in Dublin synagogues.

“At synagogue, I listened to their stories, which impressed upon me how interconnected the Irish Jewish community is with the East Coast and British Jewish communities,” Heilweil says. “Meeting those who had lived through this history was humbling and a reminder that these histories are never really ‘over.’”

This was the second trip to the Emerald Isle for Heilweil, who, as a member of her high school debate team, participated in an international tournament in Galway, on the central western coast of Ireland.

That journey completely altered her outlook on her own cultural background as a Jewish person who shares Irish roots and set the stage for her academic inquiry.

“I’m fascinated,” says Heilweil, “by what various diaspora Jewish communities have done with their heritage and religion. Noting how different Jewish communities from India to Oklahoma have made Judaism and Jewish identity their own is inspiring.”