Holocaust Awareness Museum Finds New Home

sign with campus name
The campus of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel is the new home of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center | Courtesy of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel

Moses and the Israelites may have wandered the desert for 40 years, but the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center has them beat by 19 years — in large part because an expanded mission prompted the need for more space.

HAMEC, which debuted 59 years ago, moved this month from KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia to a larger home at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. Prior homes included Gratz College at both its 10th Street and Tabor Road location in Philadelphia and in Melrose Park and also Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“The Old York Road area has lots of survivors and museum supporters,” museum President Chuck Feldman said. “KI has become a major center of Jewish life in that area.”

He noted there is some synergy with that location and some of the survivors who work with the museum.

For example, a doll kept by Ruth Kapp Hartz — a child who was hidden during World War II in southern France — will be on display at the museum. She is a KI congregant.

“We have amazing stuff and stuff that has significant meaning to survivors in that community,” he said.

Although the museum is closed to tours because of the pandemic, it claims to house the area’s largest collection of Holocaust artifacts.

The current exhibit is about the MS St. Louis, the German liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees that both the United States and Canada refused to accept. HAMEC speaker Ronnie Breslow was aboard the St. Louis as a child.

HAMEC will lease rooms 203 and 205 at the synagogue — about double the space it had at KleinLife, its home since 2001.

One room will be used to exhibit Holocaust-related materials, with the other used for office space and online presentations.

HAMEC, which is a nonprofit organization, was founded in the basement of the home of the late Yaakov Riz, a Holocaust survivor who lost 83 family members in concentration camps.

“Riz vowed that if he survived he would dedicate his life to establishing a museum that would memorialize the millions of Jews and non-Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis,” according to the HAMEC website. “The museum’s genesis, growth and struggle against intolerance are the realization of his dream, courage and commitment.”

Aside from the museum, HAMEC has an extensive educational and community outreach program. It said more than 200,000 students and adults have participated in museum programs over the years. And its educational programs reached 41,611 students and adults in 338 schools, organizations and businesses during the 2019-20 school year alone. Presentations continued virtually during the pandemic.

The museum works with about 20 survivors, 15 of whom speak regularly, Feldman said.

KI Executive Director Brian D. Rissinger said adding HAMEC to the building was consistent with the synagogue’s mission.

“Part of our strategic plan was to look at ways to build partnerships and work collaboratively with organizations in our community,” he said, noting that conversations with HAMEC began in February and a signed agreement was in place four months later.

The museum will honor KI Senior Rabbi Lance J. Sussman as its Educator of the Year on Sept. 10. Sussman funded the renovation of the museum space in honor of his grandparents, who died in the Holocaust, Rissinger said.
He anticipates the synagogue will host multiple joint education programs with the museum.

KI, which dates to 1847, also is home to the Temple Judea Museum, which showcases objects related to the history of Jewish people, and also has housed Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El since 2012.

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