Washington Jewish Week / May 28, 2009
By Larry Luxner
A Hebrew prayer for American revolutionary forces dating from the 1780s. Furniture belonging to 19th-century Jewish educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. A 1791 letter by George Washington upholding religious freedom. And a 1960s-era advertising poster proclaiming "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye."
These are just four of the 20,000 or so artifacts belonging to Philadelphia's National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) — a 32-year-old institution that's come to be known as "the Jewish window on Independence Mall."
Last week, top officials of NMAJH came to Washington — in connection with Jewish American Heritage Month — to describe their $150 million fundraising campaign to create what they hope will be the pre-eminent national educational and cultural institution preserving and celebrating American Jewish history.
"We are the only museum in the country devoted exclusively to telling the story of the American Jewish experience," said NMAJH's president and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig. "There are about 80 Holocaust museums in this country, and only one devoted to the American Jewish experience, and it's ours."
So far, NMAJH has raised $120 million toward that goal; most of that has been in the form of substantial gifts from individual donors, though the museum also received $17 million in funding from the state of Pennsylvania, as well as some federal appropriations because part of the work involves renovating a subway plaza.
"When we opened in 1976, we had only eight artifacts. Originally, it wasn't supposed to be a collecting museum," said Gwen Goodman, the museum's executive director, noting that the museum has never paid to acquire specific artifacts. "We don't have a large amount of money, and we feel that by not buying things, you do get people who will buy them for you."
The reception and subsquent lecture at the National Archives, attended by around 75 people, took place the same day President Obama used that same building as a venue to deliver a major speech on national security.
Rosenzweig said this was "absolutely not a fundraising event." Rather, he and his colleagues came to Washington "to talk about the mission of our museum, and to describe how we will tell it in this iconic new museum." He added: "It's really a story about a particular minority group, the opportunities afforded by the unique freedoms we enjoy in this country, and the challenges posed by these freedoms."
The museum currently sits on a 10,000-sq-foot property on Philadelphia's Fifth Street, about half a block from its new location at Fifth and Market, directly overlooking the Liberty Bell. The new structure will be 10 times the current size, with the core exhibition to occupy three of its five floors.
The fourth floor covers the period from 1654 through the 1880s, the third floor covers the 1880s through World War II, and the second floor, World War II to the present. On the first floor will be a 200-seat auditorium and classroom space, while the fifth floor will be used for temporary exhibits and special events.
NMAJH's chief architect is James Polshek, who also built Washington's 680,000-sq-foot Newseum — where visitors also also start on the top floor and work their way downward chronologically. The target date for opening is fall 2010.
Todd Kinser is an associate at Bethesda-based Gallagher & Associates, which among other things designed the International Spy Museum. He was also formerly curator of collections at the Newseum before it moved from Arlington, Va., to its current location on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Both of these institutions have remarkable views that are meaningful to their contents," he said. "The Newseum is situated between the White House and the Capitol, and the Mall, where the right to protest takes place — and that's one of our First Amendment rights. In the same way, the new Jewish Museum is about freedom, symbolized by the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center."
Kinser's company has plenty of experience designing exhibits for Jewish museums. Among Gallagher's projects: the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, and the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
Robert Young, an associate partner at Polshek Partnership Architects, said the NMAJH project is unique in that the architects and exhibit designers are involved in the process from the very beginning.
"This building in Philadelphia is a repository of a dynamic Jewish culture that is able to make something special of itself and push that culture out onto the world and have American culture absorb it as well," he told WJW. "For me coming into this project as a non-Jew, it's a fascinating way to hear how this tale gets told, to understand what it means to be a Jew in America."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), who attended the reception, praised the museum project as a worthy goal that could also help in the fight against anti-semitism.
"Sometimes we as Jews are hesitant to call attention to ourselves. We don't even have a formal caucus in the House of Representatives, although there are 32 of us," said the congresswoman. "It's a struggle we face, whether we should highlight the contribution of Jews to American history. We're less than 2% of the population, and many people have never interacted with a Jewish person. So it's no wonder there would be intolerance."