This May marks the 16th annual celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, a time to “pay tribute to the generations of Jewish Americans who helped form the fabric of American history, culture, and society,” according to the Library of Congress.
One notable event marking this occasion in 2022 is the reopening of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia thanks to a donation from entrepreneur Stuart Weitzman. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum, which was renamed in Weitzman’s honor, has operated solely online for nearly two years after closing its doors in 2020 due to financial hardship. During this time, it continued to encourage visitors to learn about Jewish history in the U.S. by providing virtual museum tours, posting numerous online exhibitions and educational videos, and hosting a wide variety of programs, all of which highlight the achievements and struggles of American Jews. Even with the physical location’s reopening, NMAJH will maintain its virtual museum, which allows users to simulate a walk-through of the building’s core exhibitions for free.
“As the repository of the largest collection of Jewish Americana in the world, with more than 30,000 objects, NMAJH has developed extensive institutional experience in preservation, conservation, and collections management supporting the fulfillment of its mission to preserve the material culture of American Jews,” the museum’s website states.
In the months leading up to Jewish American Heritage Month, the NMAJH hosted and participated in several major virtual events, including the international Jewish Soldiers & Fighters in World War II Conference. In addition, recent online exhibitions include the story of Siegmund Lubin, a German-Jewish immigrant who was an early pioneer in the silent film industry, and an examination of the impact of tuberculosis on Jewish American families in the late 19th century.
In commemoration of Jewish American Heritage Month, the NMAJH is launching a new exhibit that will focus on the rise of anti-Semitic violence by highlighting the January 2022 hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The exhibit will feature several artifacts from the incident and a video interview between the hostages and Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University history professor and chief historian at NMAJH. The museum is also offering in-person and virtual programs that examine the events at Colleyville within the broader context of modern anti-Semitism.
The Colleyville artifacts will be on display for one year before becoming part of a traveling exhibition. Although the terrorist act falls more in the realm of current events than history, Sarna told the newspaper Jewish Exponent that the event is important to highlight because it creates a link between the past and present by juxtaposing historic and modern acts of anti-Jewish hatred.
“You want a historical exhibit to reach up to the present,” Sarna told the publication.
In addition to the current and upcoming exhibitions, NMAJH also features several online education programs aimed at incorporating Jewish American history into classroom curricula across the country. The programs primarily focus on immigration, Jewish and American identity, religious liberty, and societal change. For example, the Becoming American program focuses on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. It is available to third- through twelfth-grade classrooms as well as adult learners. Low-income educational institutions can receive need-based scholarships to gain access to these materials. The museum also provides a free OpenBook curriculum that educators can use to plan lessons about Jewish history, including American responses to the Holocaust, Jewish life in colonial America, and the early 20th century labor movement.
“NMAJH presents educational programs and experiences that preserve, explore, and celebrate the history of Jews in America,” museum CEO Misha Galperin wrote in a 2021 American Alliance of Museums blog post. “Its purpose is to connect Jews more closely to their heritage and to inspire in people of all backgrounds a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American Jewish experience and the freedoms to which Americans aspire.”
For more information, visit theweitzman.org.●
This article was published in our May 2022 issue.