1 June 2011 | 28 Iyar 5771
What greater statement could be made about the place of the Jewish community within the United States of America than the location of the new National Museum of American Jewish History located on Independence Mall in the heart of historic Philadelphia? Consider the sites that ring the mall… Independence Hall where the US Constitution was signed, the National Constitution Center where one can study the evolving meaning of “We, the people” and the Liberty Bell, one of our nation’s most hallowed symbols of independence and core American values. Walk around the Mall and the areas immediately adjacent to it, and one finds one historic American landmark after the other…all of them “owned” by every American because each speaks to the “American experience” without any significant particularistic reference. It is amidst that setting that the National Museum of American Jewish History sits…a museum that is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. You just can’t get more American than the Smithsonian!
Thank you to Steve Chervin, the Director of our Goodman Institute, and to Sheila Adelman for organizing our congregation’s trip to Philadelphia and the Museum earlier this week. In addition, I want to thank Judith Hodara and Michal Hillman who offered invaluable support. Kudos to the co–chairs of our Goodman Institute, Nancy Levine and Valerie Habif, for a wonderful year of leaning capped off by this trip. All who participated in the Philadelphia trip wish that our hot and humid Atlanta weather had not followed us to Philadelphia, but what a wonderful experience we shared for thirty-six hours, headlined by our Sunday afternoon in the National Museum of American Jewish History.
The Museum is organized chronologically into three areas, one floor devoted to each time period. The first section, “Foundations of Freedom (1654 – 1880s)” covers the formative period of American Jewry as it moved westward and, like the rest of the country, experienced the upheaval of the Civil War. The second section, “Dreams of Freedom (1880s – 1940s)” covers the period during which the massive immigration of Eastern European Jewry changed the face of the American Jewish community and how America’s elected officials and American Jewish leaders dealt with the news of the Holocaust. The final chronological section, “Choices and Challenges of Freedom (1940s – Today)” examines the very rapid and significant changes that took place within our American Jewish community following World War II. The Museum contains other sections of interest that, like the permanent exhibition, engage us through written text, film and interesting artifacts. Among the last category is an Ahavath Achim–connected piece, the WWI gas mask of Elijah Wisebram (grandfather of our Financial Vice President Irene Aronin and uncle of Herschel Wisebram). Beth Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania, daughter of Julius and Nanette Wenger, serves as one of the Museum’s distinguished team of historians.
The National Museum of American Jewish History is a must–see as you plan future travels. But before and after you enter the Museum, spend some time on Independence Mall and reflect on the symbolic meaning of this building’s location. To some it says, “Boy, have we, as a community, arrived! Look at our power, to be located in such a place and to be seen in the same sweeping view with sacred symbols of American history and values!” To me, the location of the Museum is a metaphor for our collective experience in America and for the challenge that flows from it. Like the Museum amidst the American institutions located on Independence Mall, the American Jewish community is part of the fabric of American life. We, as a Jewish community, have been deeply affected by what is still, as measured by the full breadth of Jewish history, our brief communal life in America. The unique combination of values embodied in our country, reflected in the institutions that ring Independence Mall, enabled us to become the diverse, culturally–rich and empowered Jewish community that we are in the 21st century. At the same time, as America has given to us, so we have given to America in a variety of ways well known to us. The Museum mentions many of those contributions.
The location of the National Museum of American Jewish History captures the wonder of Jewish life in America. But it also speaks to the challenge that results from the life America has enabled us to create. I’m sure that many people walk around Independence Mall and never realize the Museum is there. Others may take momentary note of its presence and then move on to “American institutions.” Those actions, undertaken by others, are, in fact, symbolic of our own community’s potential directions. We may take our place in America with the gifts that life in American affords us and confidently share our uniqueness or we may take those same gifts and simply blend into our surroundings so that hardly anyone will take note of us. The choice will be made by us and by those who will succeed us.