By: Fern Sidman
Contemporary American Jewry experienced one of it’s signature moments on Sunday afternoon, November 14th, as over 1,000 people from all over the world gathered to attend the spectacular dedication and grand opening of a “first of its kind” museum on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Originally founded in 1976, The National Museum of American Jewish History has shared a building with the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel, but now is being housed in a $150 million, 5-story state of the art building, designed by famed architect James Stewart Polshek.
The 1,00,000-square-foot museum, located near Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center and directly across from the Liberty Bell, will be exclusively dedicated to exhibiting and interpreting the vibrant legacy of American Jews, spanning more than 350 years, from the arrival of the first Jewish community in 1654 to the present. Across three-and-a-half floors, the museum’s core exhibition explores the religious, cultural, political and economic stories of American Jews as well as examining themes of democracy, religious innovation versus continuity, immigration and integration and the various lifestyles and aspirations of this immigrant community. The main exhibit features historical artifacts, interactive media and narrative storytelling, while illuminating the history of American Jewish life with evocative objects, thirty original films and cutting-edge technology.
Mr. Polshek said that the exterior envelope of the museum is comprised of two interwoven and interdependent building volumes. The first volume, the diaphanous glass prism that faces Independence Mall, expresses the accessibility of the museum’s mission. Its luminosity beckons onlookers to enter; a reminder of the open door that greeted their forebears finding sanctuary in America. The glass also announces the fragility of the democracy that is the guarantor of the freedoms that have made this country so desirable a destination.
The curator of the core exhibition is Josh Perelman, Ph.D, the museum’s deputy director of exhibitions, programs and collections, and chief curator, who worked with a team of leading historians of American Jewish history from across the country.
The many fascinating artifacts that are on display are drawn from the museum’s collection, other prominent museums including the Smithsonian Institution; of which the museum is an affiliate and private lenders. Among the treasures to be viewed are an 1862 Confederate $2 bill with a portrait of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, a handwritten copy of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus and the nameplate from the chair of Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis.
The exhibition also includes a Contemporary Issues Forum and the “It’s Your Story” video storytelling booths which will allow visitors and their families to record stories about their families’ histories and have them archived in the museum. They will also be sent a link so that their stories can be emailed to others or posted on social media sites.
“American Jews are experiencing perhaps the greatest freedoms we’ve enjoyed in Judaism’s long, multi-thousand year history. These freedoms come directly from our nation’s foundational documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which were forged on the sacred ground of Independence Mall. It is, therefore, compellingly appropriate that the National Museum of American Jewish History is located on the Mall, the very birthplace of American liberty,” declared Michael Rosenzweig, the president and CEO of the NMAJH.
Andrea Mitchell, the NBC news chief foreign affairs correspondent served as master of ceremonies for the historic event and enthusiastically greeted the overflowing audience. The Honorable Michael A. Nutter, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia told the audience, “It is a tremendous honor and privilege for me to be here on this most historic day in US history. Today we pay tribute to the multifarious contributions and accomplishments of Jews from around the globe who played such a major role in the history of the United States. It is no irony that this most special and unique museum is located on the most historic mall in America, where liberty and justice were originally proclaimed.”
“Even though I never had the opportunity to obtain a Jewish education or even have a Bar Mitzvah, my parents made it their business that I would never forget and would continue to support my Jewish heritage,” said Edward G. Rendell, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He added that, “This outstanding museum will facilitate in promulgating the exceptional narrative of Jewish life in the United States to all people, irrespective of religion or nationality.”
The keynote address was delivered by Vice President Joseph Biden who said, “The National Museum of American Jewish History stands as a permanent and invaluable tool in helping to preserve the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience and heritage and also celebrates the freedoms that we all enjoy in the United States.” Vice President Biden relayed a story about a rabbi in Lithuania, who in the early 1800’s heard of a liberty bell in the United States that proclaimed the words of the Bible, “To declare liberty throughout the land,” and asked one of his students if this was true. The student answered in the affirmative, but told the rabbi that the liberty bell had a crack in it. The rabbi responded that it is the obligation of the Jews to mend that crack through means of their philanthropic endeavors including the building of schools and hospitals. VP Biden added that, “The Jewish people took this directive very seriously and became leaders in the arts, in politics, sports, law and the economy and truly vitalized and enhanced the building of our great country.”
The National Museum of American Jewish History will be open to the general public on Friday, November 26th. The hours or operation are Tuesday-Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and weekends from 10 am through 5:30 pm. The museum in closed on Mondays and all federal holidays that fall on Monday. The admission rates for adults is $12.00 and $11.00 for seniors, active military personnel and youth ages 13-21. For more information, please visit the NMAJH web site at: www.nmajh.org.