The new National Museum of American Jewish History, just across the street from the Liberty Bell and a one-block walk from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, is sure to be an interesting learning experience for all who enter its doors.
“This museum is a place for all Americans to explore,” said museum president and CEO Michael Rosenzweig.
Several weeks ago, 111 residents and members of the Shalom Club at the Four Seasons Metedeconk Lakes adult community in Jackson visited the museum.
“We saw stories about a new Jewish museum opening in Philadelphia and we decided to book a tour from the Shalom Club, which has about 370 members,” said Bill Langweil, the club’s president.
The museum is at the corner of Market and Fifth streets, at 101 South Independence Mall East. The museum opened on Nov. 14 with a program of entertainment featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand.
The museum houses a theater where visitors can hear stories about Danny Kaye, Al Jolson, Levi Strauss, the Marx brothers, Milton Berle, George Burns, Sophie Tucker, Betty Boop (who was created by a Jewish cartoonist) and Irving Berlin, as well as stories about the Yiddish theater and the Lower East Side of New York City. With tours provided by museum docents, members of the Shalom Club were able to learn about the first Jews who arrived in North America during the mid- 1600s.
The fourth floor holds the Foundations of Freedom exhibit, which takes visitors back to 1654 and continues to 1880. The exhibit explores Colonial times and the origin of the 23 Jews who arrived in America from Brazil and Spain.
Visitors can learn about the Jews of NewAmsterdam (New York City) and their relationship to Peter Stuyvesant (the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland).
Visitors can also learn about the Revolutionary period when there were 2,500 Jews in America, and the Civil War period when 3,000 Jews fought on the Union side and 7,000 Jews fought on the Confederate side.
The third-floor galleries, Dreams of Freedom, mark time from 1880 to 1945 with exhibits that include life in the 1880s through World War I and World War II.
On the second floor, visitors can view the Choices and Challenges of Freedom exhibits, which cover the period from 1945 to today.
The Only inAmerica Gallery on the first floor features the accomplishments of 18 extraordinary American Jews through original films and artifacts, and there is an interactive database that features hundreds of other individuals.
Visitors will learn about famous Jewish Americans such as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Sandy Koufax, Estée Lauder, Emma Lazarus, Jonas Salk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Mayer Wise, Steven Spielberg, and many others.
Exhibits include Spielberg’s first Super- 8 camera, Streisand’s costume pieces and a storyboard from “Yentl,” Berlin’s piano, Salk’s vial used for polio vaccine, and Einstein’s pipe, to name a few.
There are exhibits that deal with Jewish holidays; immigrant ethnic groups that came to the United States and faced challenges that were similar to those faced by Jewish immigrants; and more than 1,000 artifacts, as well as films and interactive technology to explore.
Langweil said many of the people from the Shalom Club who made the trip were part of Jewish American history, having lived in the period from the 1930s through today.
“Jewish history involves the history of the United States,” Langweil said. “There are Jewish entertainers, but very important is the fact that they entertain everybody, and what Jewish scientists discover affects everybody. Even though it’s called the National Museum of American Jewish History, it’s a museum that everybody would find interesting.”
Four Seasons resident Debbie Caplan said the museum’s design allowed her to see and do a lot in one day.
“It was laid out beautifully and the presentation was user-friendly,” said Caplan, who described an interactive booth where she could talk about her background. “I found it very relaxing to go through the history of the Jewish people here in America. It was uplifting and it gave us a broad overview.” Debbie’s husband, Steve, who once worked at summer camps, said he enjoyed the information about sleep-away camps.
“The tour guide was very knowledgeable and informative,” Caplan said. “I liked the films about Jewish culture, particularly the film which showed all of the American Jewish entertainers.”
He noted that he learned quite a bit about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 25, 1911, and the fact that there were so many Jewish women, as well as many Italian women, who died on that day.
For those who would like a “nosh,” there is a kosher dairy café.
The National Museum of American Jewish History is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information regarding membership, special programs, admission costs and exhibits, call 215-923-3811 or visit the Internet website at www.nmajh.org.