Stuart Weitzman Gift Gives NMAJH Second Wind

Stuart Weitzman, a white man wearing a jacket and khaki pants, stands on a short stage in front of an audience to his right. A large screen projecting his talk is behind him.
Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman speaks at WNMAJH in 2013. | Photo by Matthew Christopher

Twenty months after the National Museum of American Jewish History filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the museum’s spell of bad fortune has seemingly ended.

The newly-renamed Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History received a new moniker and eight-figure gift from Philadelphia shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, announced by the museum on Dec. 6 at its Miracle on the Mall event celebrating its benefactors.

Weitzman, a longtime friend of the museum, donated an undisclosed amount to WNMAJH, allowing it to buy its loaned building at Fifth and Market streets, as well as create an additional eight-figure Stuart Weitzman Endowment to fund future endeavors.

“This was a way for him to not only help, but also to lay a very strong foundation for a secure financial future,” WNMAJH CEO Misha Galperin said.

On Sept. 17, WNMAJH emerged from a March 2020 bankruptcy after former trustee Mitchell Morgan made a $10 million commitment to the museum, offering to buy the building and loan it to the museum for $1,000 a month for three-and-a-half years until the museum could find the means to buy the building back.

The museum’s bondholders, many of whom are board members, agreed to collectively forgive the $14 million of WNMAJH’s debt accrued after the construction of its Independence Mall location.

Galperin reached out to several friends of the museum in September in hopes of them helping the WNMAJH repurchase its building, and Weitzman was the first to respond, Galperin said.

“He is himself a Jew, an American — that’s very much part of his story,” Galperin said of Weitzman’s interest in the museum. “He was first attracted to the museum, in part, because of the George Washington letter [in the 2012 “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom” exhibit], which truly legitimized the entire concept of freedom of religion in this country.”

Weitzman, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was featured in the museum’s 2013 Dreamers and Doers Speaker Series and contributed financially to the 2018 “First Families” Gallery, which profiled American Colonial-era Jewish settlers.

Weitzman also attended the December 2019 induction of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Only in America Hall of Fame. He periodically designed shoes for Ginsburg.

“I have been inspired by the NMAJH since my first visit in 2012,” Weitzman said in a press release. “I was drawn to their iconic artifacts that demonstrate the very foundations of religious freedom in America. We are truly thrilled to be able to make this gift to the museum and humbled that this support will help to ensure that stories of American Jewish history are told and preserved for generations to come.”

In addition to buying back its building with Weitzman’s gift, WNMAJH will be able to fund a host of new programs and initiatives.

Galperin touted WNMAJH’s online fundraising efforts during the pandemic, which attracted 180,000 audience members to a single event, he said. Their virtual programming has brought in 4 million people to the museum’s site in 20 months.

Most recently, the museum digitized its core exhibits and made them available for free online, by virtue of a gift from philanthropist George Blumenthal with digitization work by Israel-based photographer Ardon Bar-Hama.

The museum will expand the virtual tour with auditory guided tours along specific routes. It is considering installing screens in the facade windows of the building that face Independence Mall.

Galperin also hinted at a potential collaboration with the newly-renovated ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, ultimately to make the museum more interactive.

“It’s a concept where the visitor becomes not a passive participant and observer, but a co-creator of the experience by putting themself and the family into the museum,” Galperin said. 

Though only open for private events, the museum, which is operating under “strict and very conservative COVID-19 precautions,” will be open to the general public in the spring.

Miracle on the Mall was WNMAJH’s first in-person event since the pandemic began. At the sold-out event, Galperin announced Weitzman’s gift and the museum’s new name to WNMAJH’s board and benefactors.

It took place on the last night of Chanukah, which was no coincidence.

“Chanukah is, first of all, a holiday celebrating religious freedom and throwing off the yoke of oppression,” Galperin said. “In our case, the oppression was the debt.”

As the museum makes plans to reopen to the public, Galperin is looking forward to new beginnings.

“I have a personal connection and affinity for the museum because it’s the story of American Jewish immigrants, and I am one of them,” Galperin said. “For me to be part of the turnaround from being in deep financial trouble to being on a solid footing with a bright future has just been one of the most joyous moments of my career.”; 215-832-0741


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