In the shadow of Independence Hall and a half block from the Liberty Bell, on some of this nation’s most hallowed ground, sits the brand new glass-and-terra-cotta National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened this November. It’s somehow fitting, this juxtaposition of a museum devoted to one of the world’s most persecuted peoples and the colonial hallways where our founding fathers banged out the grand ideals of religious tolerance.
The museum celebrates the special relationship that Jewish Americans have had with this country beginning with a display of President Washington’s 1790 letter to the congregation of the Newport, Rhode Island, synagogue, which reads “The Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” It then runs through the Jewish American role in the Revolution, Civil War, western expansion, business-empire building, the world wars, and on to the present day.
The curators of this five-story museum have made a conscious decision not to dwell on tragedy and past persecution. “We have so many Holocaust memorials,” says museum president Michael Rosenzweig, “so that chapter is one that we’ve told appropriately and quite completely. But the story of Jews in America has not.”
Freedom, the museum’s overarching theme, becomes immediately evident the moment a visitor enters the great, light-filled hall from Market Street. The tour begins on the fourth floor at the gallery “Foundations of Freedom, 1654–1880” and moves chronologically as the visitor descends through chapter-oriented exhibits, “Dreams of Freedom, 1880–1945” and “Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945–Today.”
Artifacts include the Civil War uniform of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, jazz composer Irving Berlin’s piano, clothes belonging to a young child spirited to the States from Nazi Germany, and filmmaker Stephen Spielberg’s first 8-millimeter camera. Interactive panels and films show the road that Jews headed west on in the 19th century and simulate an immigration officer’s interrogation.
Jewish history is deeply—and interchangeably—intertwined at every stage of this nation’s history, one of the reasons why this museum should be of interest to all Americans. Learn more about the National Museum of American Jewish History at www.nmajh.org or by calling (215) 923-3811.