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All Cheers on Deck as Museum Says 'Shalom'

November 18, 2010 By:
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Museum board members, supporters and politicians celebrated in a shower of confetti after Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the National Museum of American Jewish History dedication on Sunday. Photo by Jose Moreno/The Courier-Post

Her granddaughter gently guiding her by the elbow, 89-year-old Ruth Sarner-Libros walked slowly through the fourth floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History, drinking in every display.

This, Sarner-Libros said with a broad smile, was beyond anything she'd imagined when she hosted the museum's first board meeting back in 1974. It took two years to open the modest collection in a small space adjoining the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel in Old City.

Now, after a decade-long, $150 million campaign, those artifacts have been elevated to a 100,000-square-foot sparkling new home in the heart of Independence Mall.

"It's such a significant location, the exhibits are so impressive, the whole way it's put together, it's just an overwhelming experience to see a dream come true," said board president emerita Sarner-Libros, "to have a child of my imagination become a reality."

In honor of this accomplishment, hundreds of people, many of them donors, joined Sarner-Libros in a weekend-long celebration headlined by Vice President Joe Biden, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and singer/actor Bette Midler.

Founding members jump-started the festivities last Friday morning with discussions of monumental architecture and how freedoms of the Jewish people have changed throughout U.S. history.

The next night, about a thousand local and national supporters, stars and dignitaries gathered for a black-tie gala under a mammoth tent that spanned the block of Fifth Street just outside the building.

Despite the steep admission price -- individual tickets cost from $1,500 to $5,000 -- the museum still couldn't accommodate about 200 would-be revelers.

Seinfeld emceed the swanky kosher dinner. The crowd ate up his Jewish schtick as he joked about everything from his mother, who couldn't figure out a cell phone, to the undignified nature of bathroom stalls.

As Midler took the stage, she wondered why the museum was located in Philadelphia rather than New York, where, she quipped, "there are more Jews in my building than in this town."

Her performance -- characteristically peppered with humor and profanity -- was clearly tailored to the theme of the night. She sang only songs written by Jewish artists, beginning with her signature "Friends" and ending with Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

Barbra Streisand, one of 18 individuals highlighted in the museum's "Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame," created a buzz as an attendee, but neither spoke nor sang. Instead, she sat front and center with her husband, James Brolin; nearby security guards kept away fans.

Streisand also made time to stop in the museum's shop, where she spent $800 on three yads (Torah pointers) and silver candlesticks, officials said.

Meanwhile, up in the museum's designated event space on the fifth floor, roughly 600 "young friends" bobbed along to a cover band on a chic white dance floor.

"The amount of energy you feel here right now is incredible," said Lindsey Morgan, 35, a mother of two who also helps her husband with his real estate lending company. "It's like an unspoken thing how this evening means so much to our heritage. This is one of the most exciting things to happen to the city ever."

'Cultural Archive Unrivaled'

The next day, a chorus of about 50 shofar-blowers heralded the start of the official dedication ceremony. Nearly 2,000 people gathered on the mall in front of the museum, basking in the unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon.

"Welcome to the city of brotherly love, the city of sisterly affection and the Jewish experience," Mayor Michael Nutter addressed the crowd. "As a destination for American Jews, this is a cultural archive unrivaled by any other, and it's here in Philadelphia. Nowhere else but in the cradle of American liberty can this story be told so well."

Biden echoed that sentiment. Though the museum focuses on the Jewish people, "they're American stories above all else," he said. "I can think of no other city that would be a fitting showcase for them."

George Ross, co-chair of the board of trustees with Ronald Rubin and chairman of the capital campaign, said he didn't think he could have raised funding for the museum if not for the prominent location in the middle of the city's most historic square mile.

"If we can bring our children and grandchildren closer to that wonderful heritage, that moral compass that has preserved the Jewish people, then we will be a success," Ross told the crowd.

Outgoing Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell complimented Ross for managing to get money from the state not just once, but on four separate occasions.

"He wouldn't accept the fact that this would be hard to do. His belief was so strong, his passion so great, he was impossible to say no to," said the Jewish politician, who has also served as Philadelphia's mayor and district attorney. "It is something special, for Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania, for America and for the world."

After the ceremony, the museum opened to members of the public who had reserved free, timed tickets. Donors and supporters streamed into the halls, dragging confetti from the damp lawn on their shoes. Some came from as far as Cleveland and Seattle to see material they'd provided for the exhibits.

Others, like Anitta Boyko Fox, drove from North Jersey to see their familiar immigrant stories reflected in the exhibits.

"It really hit home because I came here when I was 13, and all these years you don't have time to think, and all of a sudden, you get to be 86," said Fox.

Inspired by the collection, she took advantage of the story-telling studio, where guests can record their histories. She spoke about growing up in Vienna, and how an empathetic superintendent saved her family by warning them to hide in the dark when the Nazis first overran the city.

"All night long, we heard the screaming and the crying, and the next day, all the Jews were gone," Fox said, her voice trembling. "Our door was the only one that wasn't marked with a J."

Bronya Vygodskaya, 59, a law-firm administrator from Brooklyn experienced more recent anti-Semitism. Decades ago, in Russia, she was fired from her job teaching college-level English "because I was a Jew. They officially told me that."

Being denied basic rights because of her religion, she said, makes it even more important to preserve that identity.

At every corner, docents called to visitors to make sure they didn't miss a particularly interesting artifact -- a telegram about the planned annihilation of the Jews during World War II or passports from immigrants who came through Ellis Island.

"I have to come back at least another dozen times so I can soak it all in," said Catherine Camlin, 54, of Cherry Hill, N.J. "It's very, it's very... " she trailed off, patting her hand over her heart. "It makes you want to trace your roots back, too."

Her friend, Louis Seiden, 62, of Cinnaminson, N.J., said he hoped the museum would show the non-Jewish world what Jews accomplished in America.

The last exhibit invited visitors to post responses to questions lining the circular room.

"Our religion is based on the constant questioning of things, so I think it's brilliant that they created this space for people to think and question," said University of Delaware freshman Jessie Leider, 18, posting her opinion on why intermarriage threatens religious communities.

"It's an ongoing religion. It's not just the history," said Leider. "It's the future of our people."

The museum opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 26. More information can be found at: www.nmajh.org.

Jewish Exponent executive editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.

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