A Sneak Peek: The National Museum of American Jewish History

— Charlotte Glass Loeb

A glittering jewel has been added to the crown of Philadelphia’ s national historic treasures. The National Museum of American Jewish History, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is the only museum in the nation dedicated exclusively to exploring and preserving the American Jewish experience. If location is everything, this one has it all. Placed right next to the sites where our very freedoms were conceived, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, it tells a story uniquely American and distinctly Jewish, but one that will resonate with other immigrant ethnic groups who also flourished within the context of liberty and freedom. The 100,000 square foot building itself, a fa├žade of five gleaming glass stories, sends a vibrant message: Jews in America need not hide behind high walls; Jews have been woven into American society. Jews are free to practice Judaism in a multitude of manners, out in the open. The glass exterior and the windows that look out on Independence Mall symbolize transparency as well as the fragility of democracy; Americans must steadfastly protect these values for everyone.

More after the jump.

The entry to the building, just steps away from our founding institutions, welcomes the visitor to a light, bright spacious atrium, punctuated by two dramatic, open staircases climbing higher and higher to the every top of the structure. Here is where the visitor is oriented, can enjoy a kosher snack or lunch in the café run by Betty the Caterer, or shop for interesting books and gifts in the museum store. The Museum is committed to keeping its message alive through interactive and
personal involvement. They are training 50 docents to help guide visitors through the exhibits.

Only in America

The unique “Only in America” Gallery Hall of Fame dominates the center of the first floor. Here is an innovative combination of multimedia, original artifacts and interactive experiences that illustrate the choices, challenges and opportunities a select few individuals encountered on their pathways to remarkable achievement. The lives of eighteen distinguished Jewish Americans were selected to represent Jews’ 350 years of history in the United States, their important achievements and the diverse fields in which Jews have been involved.

How does one select eighteen people from the hundreds of American Jews who left an indelible mark on humanity?

A public vote from a list of 218 possible candidates was offered through an interactive
database available on the Museum’ s Only in America website. More than 209,000 votes were cast from 56 countries. The final selections were the persons who received the most votes in a category, further refined by the historians and curators to ensure that the exhibit was well balanced.

The finalists are:

  • Irving Berlin, composer and lyricist
  • Leonard Bernstein, conductor, composer and pianist
  • Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice
  • Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate physicist
  • Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism
  • Sandy Koufax, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher
  •  Estée Lauder, cosmetic company founder
  • Emma Lazarus, poet, author of “The New Colossus
  • Issac Leeser, publisher, editor, translator
  • Golda Meir, 4th Prime Minister of the State of Israel
  • Jonas Salk, virologist, developed polio vaccine
  •  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of Lubavitcher movement

  • Rose Schneiderman, labor union leader and socialist
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer, author
  • Steven Spielberg, film director, producer and screenwriter
  • Barbra Streisand, singer, actress, director, songwriter
  • Henrietta Szold, Zionist leader and founder of Hadassah and
  • Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of Reform Judaism.

The best way to tour the Museum is to ride up to the fifth floor which is dominated by a large, bright event space designed to hold private parties, meetings and conferences. Temporary exhibits will share this space from time to time.

The fourth, third and second floors hold the main exhibits that are arranged in chronological order according to three themes:

  • Foundations of Freedom,
  • Dreams of Freedom, and
  • Choices and Challenges of Freedom.

Each of these exhibits is filled with artifacts, primary documents, films, and state of the art technology bringing this history to life, while taking note of the constant adaptations required as the world changed from decade to decade.

Foundations of Freedom (1654-1880)

“Foundations of Freedom” explores the founding of a new community in a new nation, from the earliest Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam in 1654, through the Revolutionary War era, to the Westward Expansion and the Civil War, as the groundwork of a vibrant future is laid. In the center of the gallery, a sweeping interactive map of the United States provides a hands-on illustration of how Jewish movement throughout the country fits into the broader story of American expansion. Media installations such as this introduce and make understandable how large historical forces like immigration, transportation, and population growth relate to the American Jewish experience. Among the many artifacts on display is a record of the first Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654 and their ambivalent welcome by Peter Stuyvestant, a document signed by Haym Solomon and James Madison during the Revolutionary War Period and a menu showing the availability of kosher meals at a Constitution planning meeting in 1788. As the nation moved westward, so did the Jews. A large covered wagon is on interactive display reminding visitors that settling the west caused severe hardships on all Americans, including those Jews who struggled to maintain their Jewishness on the prairie or in small towns. The Civil War brought Jews to both sides of the conflict and Jewish soldiers wore uniforms of both blue and gray. General Grant expelled Jews out of the Tennessee Territory and it was up to President Lincoln to overrule him. Not until 1877 were Jews accorded freedom in every state.

Dreams of Freedom (1880-1940)

“Dreams of Freedom” displays numerous artifacts relating to these transformative years of mass migration when millions of immigrants arrived in America, among them two and a half million Jews, and fundamentally changed American society. This exhibit explores how European Jews embarked on a journey to America and documents the choices and challenges they faced upon settling in their new homeland. This is the period in which Jews created a constellation of philanthropic institutions that assisted immigrants, cared for the poor and the elderly, provided education and supported their efforts to become Americans. Jewish culture thrived with actors, comedians, songwriters, and playwrights. The Yiddish press and Yiddish theater blossomed. By the 20th Century Jews were taking leading positions in American
business and politics. They emerged as leaders in the labor movement, the garment industry, sports and movies. Many Jews served heroically in World War I. Incidents of anti-Semitism increased led by influential people such as Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin. Adolph Hitler’ s rise to power spurred desperate attempts to flee
Germany and the lands it conquered; the United States eventually accepted only 200,000 refugees. More than half a million Jews joined to defeat the Nazis by serving in the United States’ armed forces during World War II. Exhibits relating to the Holocaust tell the story from the American Jewish point of view, differing from the perspective of Holocaust museums.

Choices and Challenges of Freedom (1940-today)

From the Cold War to suburbanization to the birth of the counter-culture movement, this area examines how the post-war Jewish community reinvented itself to confront the challenges of a new era. The development of suburbia changed the very nature of the Jewish experience with new communities and new synagogues. The three major
strands of Judaism – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – wrestle with the challenges posed by contemporary Jewish life. One exhibit features films of 13 synagogues offering virtual tours of synagogues built after World War II. Religious expressions continue to change with the development of smaller prayer groups such as havurot and minyanim.

Jewish education branched out to include day schools and Jewish camps became the normative way for Jewish adolescents to strengthen their Jewish identity. Most Jewish Americans rallied to support the establishment of the State of Israel, and its founding inaugurated a complex and ongoing relationship between the two countries and their Jewish communities. Jews have been a part of every contemporary issue and were in the forefront of the civil rights movement, the fight for equal rights for women, the concerted effort to free Soviet Jewry, and creating a green America. Jewish Americans rose to hold key positions in government, business, science, the arts and technology. An American Jew ran as a candidate for Vice-President of the United States. The American Jewish community continues to reinvent itself to confront the challenges of the 21st Century.

Education Center

The concourse features classrooms and a 200-seat Dell Theater which will offer a full slate of programming including lectures, films, plays and music. Exploring the American Jewish experience is not a passive process. It will be supported and invigorated at the Museum by active and extensive educational programming. The Museum will use the
latest in communications and digital technology to provide resources, activities and support to educators, students and families across the country and around the world. It is anticipated that 50,000 school-age children from public, parochial and charter schools across the country will visit the Museum annually. Serving visitors of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, the Museum’ s depiction of one ethnic group’ s experience of freedom will provide important lessons about the civic, religious and ethnic history of the United States as a whole.

The National Jewish History Museum is truly a treasure and should make all Philadelphians proud to have this institution in this community. It is an exciting presentation of the 500-year-long story of the Jews of America. Granted freedoms here that had been denied them for centuries, they immersed themselves in the American experiment and demonstrated how a people with its own unique culture could participate in the building of a free society. It is a story worth telling – at the new National Museum of American Jewish History.

Visitors can further enrich this narrative at the “It’s Your Own Story” booth. a video recording booth that invites visitors to tell their own stories, share family histories, and react to some of the new Museum’s central themes.

After visitors record their stories, they will be emailed a web link that they can share with their friends and family or embed on a Facebook or YouTube page. In addition, every video will be preserved by the Museum and a selection will be accessible to anyone visiting the Museum.

In addition, there is a “Contemporary Issues Forum,” where visitors will be asked to respond to such provocative questions such as “Is intermarriage a threat to the American Jewish community?” “Does anti-Semitism exist in the United States?” and “Should religion play a role in American politics?”

In addition, people’s opinions, their handwriting, and their physical image, will be projected into the space.

Grand Opening

The National Museum of American Jewish History will celebrate the opening of its new national destination museum on Independence Mall with a Grand Opening Weekend, Nov. 12-14, headlined by entertainers Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld at a Saturday night Gala on Nov. 13.

In addition to the Gala, the three-day celebration will include a symposium on Friday and a Grand Opening Dedication Ceremony on Sunday with participation by prominent elected officials, national communal leaders and distinguished dignitaries.

The Museum’s Grand Opening Weekend begins Friday, Nov. 12 with a symposium featuring two panel discussions. The first, from 10 a.m. – 11:30 a.m., titled “Jewish Encounters with Freedom: Snapshots from the American Past and Present,” is co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program of the University of Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. The second panel, “Crafting American Public Space,” from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., is the Murray Friedman Memorial Roundtable, co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Festivities continue with a Grand Opening Gala starting Saturday at 6 p.m. with a reception in the Museum followed by a dinner and special performances by Midler and Seinfeld under the stars in a clear-top tent on Independence Mall.

Saturday evening will also include a Young Friends Gala that will feature cocktails, desserts and dancing for Museum supporters between 21 and 40 years of age inside the Museum.

The Museum’s Grand Opening Weekend will culminate Sunday at noon with an opening dedication ceremony that will include prominent elected officials, national communal leaders and dignitaries from across the country. The program will also include the affixing of a mezuzah on the new Museum and an Open House. Timed tickets, subject to building capacity, will be distributed to registrants in advance for the Open House.

After the Grand Opening Weekend, the Museum will open to the public on Friday, Nov. 26, following a series of exclusive previews for Founding Members on Sunday Nov. 21 and Monday Nov. 22. Founding members by $54 and can not only participate in these opening celebrations, but can continue to visit the museum for free throughout the year. Founding members will be listed in the Museum with other Jewish Americans who have played important roles in shaping the history of this country.

The museum will be closed on all Mondays, the Jewish and Secular New Years, Yom Kippor, Thanksgiving, and the first two days of Passover. During Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, tickets can not be purchased on site and the café and store will be closed, so you will have to purchase your tickets in advance if you want to spend an enriching Shabbat afternoon in the Museum, and you are not already a member.

Updated information about the Grand Opening Weekend, including how to purchase tickets and attend events, will be posted on the Museum’s website.


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