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November 16, 2010 2:25 pm

National Museum of American Jewish History Opens in Philadelphia – A Celebration of the American Jewish Experience

avatar by Maxine Dovere

The building, designed by James Polshek, is a symbolic combination of the translucence of glass and the solidity of terra cotta, and houses a wide ranging collection highlighting the story of the American Jewish Community's search for freedom. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

PHILADELPHIA, November 14   shimmering in the soft autumn sun, the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History, sited just to the north of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, was officially dedicated Sunday at Noon.  The building, designed by James Polshek, is a symbolic combination of the translucence of glass and the solidity of terra cotta, and houses a wide ranging collection highlighting the story of the American Jewish Community’s search for freedom. “The history of the Jewish people in American

It is fundamentally a ‘freedom story,” noted Michael Rosenzweig, President of the Museum since 2009. To tell that story, the Museum has gathered a collection of real and symbolic artifacts, created a series of film and videos, and developed a series of interactive experiences designed to tell “the rich and complex story of Jewish life in America” since the arrival of the first Jews in 1654.

The museum’s beginnings were far more humble than its current incarnation.   For 34 years, its collection occupied a limited space within the headquarters of Mikveh Israel, the historic congregation known as the Synagogue of the Revolution (American, that is).  The building’s location is a geographic symbol of the connection to the freedom that has fostered Judaism’s development under the protection of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The museum provides an historical survey of the American Jewish experience.  The visitor’s tour begins on the fourth floor displaying the artifacts of the earliest years and, through a series of bridges and stair cases winds through four floors of displays and exhibitions detailing 350 years of Jewish culture and development in the freedom of the American nation.  Jews were revolutionary loyalists and patriots,  Yankees and Rebels during the Civil War, thinkers and gangsters, scientists and musicians, contributors to every aspect of American life.  The museum’s collections highlight the secular and religious (examined from the historical, not the spiritual point of view) development, displaying artifacts and commentary about 350 years of Jewish history in America.

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A spectacular grand opening weekend, beginning with scholarly discussions of Jewish history in America, followed by the Murray Friedman Memorial Roundtable, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and presenting an extraordinary panel of leading American architects discussing the relationship between architecture and public spaces, was followed by a star studded Saturday night gala attended by leaders of Philadelphia’s philanthropic and Jewish communities and their friends.  Master of Ceremonies Jerry Seinfeld entertained with stories with a strong ethnic component; Bette Midler added spice and strong Jewish entertainment references to her performance. Singing her signature “You are the wind beneath my wings,” she was joined by many in audience, many who shed a tear.  The presence of Barbara Streisand was acknowledged from the stage.

Sunday’s ceremonies of dedication began with the proclamation of (50) blowers of shofar who announced the museum’s opening from a balcony facing Independence Mall.  “This is a very big deal!” said former governor Ed Rendell. It is “a story of a way of life, of survival, a proud and remarkable history that deserves to be told.”  Mainstay of the Museum’s development, George Roth, considers the measurement of the Museum’s success as the ability to “bring my children and my grandchildren closer to their heritage – the moral compass that has preserved the Jewish people.”

Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, spoke of the Museum’s ability to present a “struggle and remaking that is typically American.  “Nowhere else but in Philadelphia – the cradle of liberty – can the story be told so well.”

Following a series of speakers expressing gratitude for dedication, hard work, and financial support, the audience   welcomed keynote speaker, Vice President Joseph Biden whose presentation was warm and enveloping. “When we embrace diversity in America, said the Pennsylvania raised Biden, “we become more than the sum of the parts.”  In an apparent reference to the symbolism of the building’s physical structure, he said the museum is an institution that “celebrates the Diaspora past and illuminates the contribution made by Americans in our shared future” “with stories that “are Jewish stories…but that are American stories above all else.”

The Vice President was very warmly received by this audience of over 1000.  Following his speech, he briefly left the stage to personally great Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Chairman of the board of Agudas Chasidei Chabad. Shemtov, known as the “Rebbe’s ambassador to Washington, DC, has a strong relationship with Biden.  The mutual respect and admiration between the two leaders was obvious.

The dedication ceremony concluded with the mounting of a mezuzah designed by Aimee Golant at the Museum’s entryway, broadcast live to the gathered audience.  As Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a renowned scholar of modern orthodoxy, pronounced the blessings, the Museum’s Board of Directors shared the celebration, showering the audience with a cloud of blue and white confetti, much to the delight and applause of all attending.

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