Looking to learn more about Jewish history and culture?
A blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.
Consider an excursion to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. Located in the Old City, near the Liberty Bell, this 100,000-square-foot, glass-and-terra-cotta-cloaked building explores the history of Judaism in the United States from the 1600s until modern day.
I visited the Museum last month to explore my Jewish heritage and to see how we can improve our own visitor experience services at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At the National Museum of American Jewish History there are three floors of interactive state-of-the-art exhibits, focusing on the theme of American Freedom, with each floor offering a historical chapter: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945” and Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today.”
My visit to the Museum gave me an opportunity to learn why Jews immigrated to America, the choices they faced, the challenges they confronted and the ways in which they assimilated into American culture. I was excited that the Baltimore Jewish community and the establishment of our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was included in the “Establishing Communities” exhibit. As I grew up near Newport, RI, I was fascinated to read more about the Touro Synagogue and learn about how some Jewish merchants were connected to the slave trade. The Civil War portion of the exhibit mentioned the debate between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Throughout the core exhibit, I was impressed by the inclusion of evocative objects such as a Dutch record from 1654, depicting one of the earliest references to Jews in North America, as well as immigrant belongings, Jewish themed movie posters, and expressions of political and social issues ranging from the push of equality for Jewish women within American society and the fight for gay marriage.
The exhibit ends in the present day with the opportunity to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story. The Contemporary Issues Forum asks the visitor to respond to questions such as “Should religion play a role in American politics?” There are also video recording stations called, It’s Your Story, where you can respond to questions such as “What is the most valuable thing you learned at summer camp” or “share your favorite holiday tradition.”
The “Only in America” Gallery, located in the lobby area, contains images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans selected by voters on the internet. I was honored that they included Louis Brandeis, from my alma mater Brandeis University. The lobby level also contains a small installation on “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” There is also a first rate gift shop (with a fantastic book for sale on the core exhibition which I purchased).
I am happy to report that I developed a stronger connection to Judaism and greater understanding of how the Maryland Jewish story fits into the larger American Jewish experience at NMAJH. I hope that others can have an equally rewarding experience at this museum.