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December 8, 2005 By:
Gloria Hayes Kremer, JE Feature
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A list signed by Franklin, shown at the National Museum of American Jewish History

The biggest birthday party ever will be happening right here in Philadelphia!

Benjamin Franklin, the nation's oldest - and possibly most important - Founding Father, will celebrate his 300th birthday, as Philadelphia reinvents this remarkable man with an international traveling exhibition at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.

"Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" is a remarkable exhibit - with scores of related events - opening Dec. 15 and running through April 30.

What better way to revisit the past and play tourist in your hometown than this? Visitors can see the superb interactive exhibit, and then expand their knowledge of Franklin and the events that shaped the creation of the Constitution by watching a 17-minute multimedia presentation called "Freedom Rising."

The permanent exhibits give even more insight and, nearby, visitors can enjoy Signer's Hall, which features life-size statues of the Constitution's signers and dissenters.

This unprecedented collection is valued at more than $150 million; it has been gathered from institutions and private lenders (including many Franklin descendants) from around the world, and incorporates five of America's founding documents, all signed by Franklin.

Among the artifacts are Franklin's walking stick; his signed copy of the Treaty of Paris; the odometer he invented; and pages from his Poor Richard's Almanak.

After the exhibit's debut in Philadelphia, it will travel to major museums in Houston, St. Louis, Denver, Atlanta and end in Paris in 2008. In his own words, Franklin's lifelong quest was to "apply collaboration, mediation and relationship-building skills in order to create a better world."

He helped establish an independent and unified nation, and is the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America.

As part of the exciting events during the run of the exhibit, the National Museum of American Jewish History (215-923-3812 or log on to: www.njajh. org) will offer "Benjamin Franklin and Religious Liberty," exploring his relationship with the Jewish community and illustrating Franklin's key role in forging a pluralistic America.

Among the artifacts shown will be the original ledger signed by Franklin in 1788 when he pledged money - today's equivalent of $800 - for "the people of the Hebrew society in the city of Philadelphia" to Mikveh Israel, the synagogue that adjoins the museum.

Surprised? During the Revolutionary War, when the British were occupying New York City, the Jewish community there moved down to Philadelphia, where a synagogue on Fifth Street between Market and Chestnut Streets had been built in 1782.

Following the war, they returned to New York. Mikveh Israel then found itself with a much smaller congregation and in a bit of a financial bind.

The congregation's leaders reached out to important members of the local community, including Franklin. The list pledging money to the synagogue contains close to 50 signatures (all non-Jews), and includes significant names like David Rittenhouse, Thomas Fitzsimmons and several signators of the Declaration of Independence.

Also in the exhibit are first editions of Franklin's autobiography and the first book published by Franklin, a work by William Sewell, a 1728 History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People Called the Quakers.

The Jewish community's prominence in Franklin's estimation - and his in theirs - is reflected in the Pennsylvania Gazette obituary of the city leader in 1790 that detailed how "all the Clergy of the city, including the Ministers of the Hebrew congregation" joined the funeral cortege.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will feature a theatrical storyteller in an original piece exploring the Jewish community in 18th-century Philadelphia. Performances are on Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.; Fridays, noon to 3 p.m.; and occasional weekdays.

Some history: Franklin was born in 1706 to a working-class family in Boston. He ran away from home at age 17, gaining passage on a ship. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1723, he wandered through the streets of the town where he first saw his future wife, Deborah, and many leaders of the institutions he would help establish. Among them are the Library Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society.

Franklin first worked as a tradesman, and later as a government official as he constantly observed and analyzed the world around him. He lived at what is now known as Franklin Court, between Third and Fourth streets, off Market Street, and frequently worked in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall).

Franklin and his wife, Deborah, are buried at Christ Church Burial Ground, at Fifth and Market streets. There is a 20-minute, guided walking tour, "Franklin's Fabulous Friends, Family & Foes," discussing life in Philadelphia from 1730 as 1790. This ongoing tour runs every hour on the hour (215-922-1695 or visit: www. oldchristchurch.org).

The Franklin who emerges from this exhibition is the voracious, extraordinary man who wanted to develop and improve everything from stoves to governments. He is hard to classify, as he was an inventor, scientist, author, civic leader, diplomat, environmentalist, musician, philosopher, meteorologist, revolutionary and Founding Father.

A Dollar Saved …

For this auspicious celebration, the federal government will issue two commemorative silver dollars, and possibly, a stamp featuring Franklin. Special "Benergy" events will burst forth all over the city, including the Philadelphia Orchestra performance of a specially commissioned piece by Daniel Kellogg; the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "In Pursuit of Genius," featuring French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon's famous bust of Franklin; and the Pennsylvania Ballet's revival of "Franklin Court."

Created especially for the 300th-birthday celebration is an hourlong, self-guided tour, "Walking in Franklin's Footsteps," that reveals the same streets Franklin walked (Elfreth's Alley), and the places he worked (Independence Hall), played (American Philosophical Society), lived (Franklin Court) and founded (Pennsylvania Hospital).

So much is planned that for the most up-to-date information, it's best to log on to: www.gophila.com/ben.

 

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