PHILADELPHIA (RNS) The new museum that’s set to open just a stone’s throw from Independence Hall is officially called the National Museum of American Jewish History, but organizers prefer to see it as a museum of American history viewed through a Jewish lens.
The history of the Jewish people in America is fundamentally a “freedom story,” said museum president Michael Rosenzweig, and while faith shapes the museum’s narrative, it is not a religious institution.
“A non-Jew should go through (the exhibits) and feel the story is pertinent to them,” said Linda Steinberg, the museum’s education director.
When it opens to the public on Nov. 26, the five-story glass building will showcase everything from a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax to an immigrant trunk carried through Ellis Island to a 1960s paper deli worker’s hat for “Mrs. Weinberg’s Kosher Chopped Liver.”
The museum is also home to the Only in America Gallery and Hall of Fame, which honors the contributions of prominent Jewish Americans from Irving Berlin to Louis Brandeis to Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.
Blending household artifacts with films, interactive media and walls adorned with historical narratives, the museum also includes a number of child-friendly stations where youngsters can climb aboard a covered wagon, or try on clothes in a model tenement apartment.
The three and a half floors of exhibit space presents “the rich and complex story of Jewish life in America over the course of 350 years,” said deputy director Josh Perelman.
Organizers placed the museum in Philadelphia — as opposed to, say, New York or Washington, because they wanted to show “how Judaism developed in a world of freedom,” and Philadelphia is where American freedom found its voice in the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Most visitors will start at the “Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880” exhibit, which traces Jewish experience in the American colonies and on the frontier.
One of Perelman’s favorite artifacts is the so-called “Richmond Prayer,” written at a synagogue in Richmond, Va., which includes the words “President of the United States” in Hebrew and an acrostic that mentions President George Washington.
“Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945” maps how waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe adapted to their new home and shaped American culture, religion and politics. A pair of silver Sabbath candles with a bullet hole suggests the history of persecution from which many Jews fled.
Though the museum narrates the bleak history of the Holocaust, it is remarkable in that it doesn’t stop there, said Jonathan Sarna, the dean of American Jewish historians at Brandeis University.
“This is the first major Jewish history museum that isn’t about death and destruction,” said Sarna, the museum’s chief historian.
“Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945-Today” explores Jewish involvement in the movements for civil rights and women’s rights, including the ordination of the first female rabbis, both black and white.
Curators didn’t shirk the more controversial aspects of Jewish-American culture. Jews were both loyalists and patriots during the American Revolution, fought in blue and gray during the Civil War, and were represented among early 20th-century gangsters. In the section devoted to the 1950s spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, posters remind visitors that Protestant and Catholic clergy spoke out, in vain, against the death penalty for the couple.
The rise of Reform Judaism and Orthodox communities in America isn’t presented from a religious viewpoint, but rather as a historical development. The museum gives a nod to Jews who are unaffiliated with any religious movement, or who create new grassroots communities like minyan prayer fellowships.
“What we tried to show was that in America, there are many ways of being Jewish,” Sarna said, adding that “one is hard-pressed to find a theme in American religious history that isn’t in some way paralleled in the history of American Judaism.”
With the exception of Native Americans and African-Americans, all other immigrant groups arrived on U.S. shores seeking the same freedoms as the Jews, Rosenzweig said. They all grappled with the “tension between living in unlimited freedom and wanting to preserve their heritage.”
For the Philadelphia museum, that meant wrestling with the thorny question of whether to be open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, when a quarter of weekly visitors are expected.
It was a “delicate and challenging question (for the board) because we are not a religious institution,” Rosenzweig said. “Our goal is not to comply with Jewish law, but to demonstrate respect for Jewish tradition.”
The compromise was to remain open on Saturdays but not allow commercial transactions on the premises. Tickets will be sold online and in advance, and credit card receipts at the museum gift shop won’t be processed until after sundown.
The policy offers a “teachable moment” for visitors and staff, Rosenzweig noted, and another reminder of the delicate balance between living in freedom and preserving a particular religious heritage.