Weitzman Might Become a Smithsonian Institution

The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (Barry Halkin/Halkin Photography)

The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History may become a Smithsonian institution.

But what does that mean?

Consider the name: Smithsonian. What do you think of it?

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, whose district includes Northeast Philadelphia, portions of North Philadelphia and portions of Center City, may have explained it best. It’s common for people to visit Philadelphia for its historical sites such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Maybe the Weitzman becomes part of that trip as well.

“There’s far more we can do in teaching people about the longstanding history of Jewish Americans and how that has played an integral role in our nation’s history,” Boyle said.

A March 20 email from the Weitzman revealed the news: “A bipartisan, bicameral coalition in the U.S. Congress is championing an effort to establish a Smithsonian museum dedicated to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience,” it said. The coalition introduced the “Commission to Study the Potential Transfer of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History to the Smithsonian Institution Act.”

The commission will consist of “nine individuals with relevant expertise to study the feasibility of transferring the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia to the Smithsonian Institution.” Pennsylvania’s senior U.S. senator, Bob Casey, “led” the effort in the Senate. Boyle is part of the House effort led by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-25).

Museum officials are thrilled.

“We aspire to be national. The Smithsonian accelerates that process for us in a significant way,” said Phil Darivoff, the Weitzman’s chair emeritus. “The 4 million people who come to visit Independence Mall will now look at this not just as a Jewish museum but as their museum.”

The Smithsonian is “the world’s largest museum and research complex,” according to the email. The organization’s holdings include 21 museums. Among them are the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian.

Several “explore and educate about America’s minority communities,” the email said. “The American Jewish community merits a Smithsonian museum,” it added.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to agree.

This effort started about a year ago, according to Boyle. It was inspired by rising antisemitism, per Casey. And that was before Oct. 7.

“We knew antisemitism was a terrible problem before Oct. 7. It was growing exponentially, and then it just increased substantially since then,” Casey said. “We’ve never had a period like this in our history.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (Courtesy of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey)

The senator believes that the Weitzman can play a small role in combating antisemitism by telling the Jewish story in America. A visit to the museum makes it clear that the Jewish story is also the American story: Immigrant group arrives, faces a struggle, perseveres and ultimately succeeds. And in succeeding, it contributes to the development of the country.

“You could learn a great deal from the Weitzman without solely focusing on Jewish history,” Casey said.

The Philadelphia museum was also the obvious choice.

“I favor the hometown museum,” Casey said. “But I can’t think of a museum that’s more deserving.”

Darivoff believes there’s “an epidemic of ignorance about the Jewish people,” he said. But Judaism is in many ways connected to Americanism, he explained.

The Declaration of Independence included language from the Hebrew bible. The Jewish approach to law influenced the development of the American legal system. Jews also got here as early as the 17th century.

“It is so basic to American political thought and American values. And I don’t think many children and grandchildren know enough about the connection between their culture and the founding of this country,” Darivoff said.

The Smithsonian name will enhance more than just the Weitzman’s brand, according to Darivoff. The Smithsonian organization has “an extraordinary collection of Judaica,” Darivoff said.

It also “opens doors for us and for donors,” he added. “And I’m not even talking about financial donors. People who hold precious objects who might be incentivized to donate to the Weitzman museum.”

The Weitzman, then the National Museum of American Jewish History, declared bankruptcy during the pandemic before being rescued by an eight-figure gift from shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Its CEO, Misha Galperin, is stepping down this year.

Darivoff is also the chair of the Committee on Government Affairs at the museum. He said the next step is calling 535 lawmakers to get them on board.

“We need to get started,” he said.

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