Is American Jewish History Worth Telling?

By Misha Galperin, Ph.D.

Last June I was asked to help plan the future of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) as it was nearing the 10th anniversary of moving into a spectacular new 100,000 square foot building on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall – across the street from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Such prominence at the place of America’s birth was the intent of the leadership of NMAJH. It would be a way to show what America did for the Jews and what Jews did for America. Its core exhibition tells a story of both the yearning for and struggle for freedom.

It is an essential American story that anyone with an immigrant family history can relate to – Jew or gentile, American born or visitor from abroad.

I visited here the year it opened in 2010. I brought my entire staff from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North American operations and many of our Israeli colleagues. As so many others before and since, I found meaningful connections within the Museum in the stories of Russian and Brazilian immigrants struggling to come to these shores. There were stories that touched me personally, including one on The Educational Alliance, a Jewish settlement house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which I once ran, and one on the first Jewish overnight camp, “Surprise Lake,” where my children had gone. Others made me laugh and marvel at the genius of Gilda Radner’s “What is this I hear about Soviet Jewelry?!” routine on Saturday Night Live.

There was, too, the “Only in America” Gallery and Hall of Fame: Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Louis Brandeis, Leonard Bernstein, Sandy Koufax, Emma Lazarus, Jonas Salk, Henrietta Szold, Steven Spielberg … and this year, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was inducted and feted by nearly a thousand people at the Museum and thousands more online.

Yet, the institution was clearly struggling. It had a debt of approximately $30 million, incurred at a time of construction during 2008-2010 when philanthropy was at its lowest point in decades.

Visitorship was about 75% Jewish and tended to be older. Its fabulous temporary exhibitions like “Chasing Dreams” (about forming American identity through baseball) and one on Leonard Bernstein in honor of the centennial of his birth – both recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities – brought in new audiences and continue to travel to other venues to great acclaim, but were not financially self-sustainable and required significant additional fundraising on top of the Museum’s ongoing operations.

Two years prior, a significant cut in the budget in an attempt to bring expenses in line with revenues took place, leaving a staff that was too thin and a Board that was disheartened. When I conducted the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, one of the trustees described how people would ask about the Museum as if it were a sick relative: lowered voice, concerned and sympathetic turn of the head, “How is the Museum doing?”

I was asked to step in as an Interim CEO beginning in July, 2019. After starting with the SWOT Analysis which involved interviews with various stakeholders, review of past plans, campaigns and strategies, I proposed a three-pronged approach: implement immediate measures to stabilize the institution, devise medium-term (3 to 6 months) actions to prepare for strategic planning, and develop a set of long-term strategies to renew and strengthen the institution.

Every single member of the board and some of our long-time friends contributed to a Transition Fund which carried us through the first six months of the fiscal year (July 1 to December 31). We opened our doors to the public for free admission during July and August under our “Let FREEdom Ring” project underwritten by the Transition Fund contributions. We conducted a comprehensive market research study with people coming to Independence Mall but otherwise mostly bypassing the Museum. We also interviewed a large number of our significantly increased flow of visitors, and launched robust marketing efforts through both traditional and digital channels. Exciting and attractive exhibitions and public programs were planned for the fall and a Strategic Advancement Study informed by what we learned through market research was devised to speak with past, current, and potential supporters about the various routes to a successful future.

Having run many a successful fundraising campaign – most recently a $100 million effort to rebuild what was known as Beit Hatfutsot – Diaspora Museum — and has been transformed into the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, I began an exploration of a new campaign for NMAJH. What became crystal clear is that significantly reducing our debt, righting the financial future, and investing in critical education programs and compelling exhibitions that honor the stories of extraordinary American Jews is the only way to attract the kind of support we need to ensure the fulfillment of a mission that serves every American and one that can only be stewarded by NMAJH.

We now have hope and we have plans that are realistic, and ideas that are exciting and promising. We had the most successful series of events and exhibits in the Museum’s history in the last seven months, and our attendance since last July has been double what it used to be and, in some months – quadruple. Our tireless Board of Trustees, staff and volunteers have continued to step up their efforts in all areas.

After the smash exhibit “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and the Justice’s extraordinary presence at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, we reinstalled our traveling exhibition “Power of Protest: the Movement to Free Soviet Jews” – two versions of which are currently traveling around the country thanks to generous government and foundation support — and, in conjunction, we will have Natan Sharansky, the most famous of the Soviet refuseniks, former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, human rights activist and best-selling author; Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism here on March 15 to talk about how the Soviet Jewry Movement can be a model and an inspiration for the fight against antisemitism.

On April 17, we will open “The Evidence Room” – the art installation exhibition inspired by Deborah Lipstadt’s trial against Holocaust denier David Irving after its successful runs at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. NMAJH will be the first Jewish venue and the first history museum to present the exhibit. We will have Deborah Lipstadt with us for a public program and many educational opportunities.

Having just been voted one of the 10 best religious-themed museums in the country by a USA Today nationwide poll, NMAJH will also be leading Jewish American Heritage Month nationally during May.

We are halfway through conducting the Strategic Advancement Study to map out the Museum’s long-term future. It will bring about substantial changes. It will make the Museum stronger and better.

But to have a vibrant future, the board had to deal with the untenable debt burden and make the difficult decision to file for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Significantly reducing the Museum’s debt is absolutely essential. The debt is nearly four times our operating budget. The court papers were filed on Sunday, March 1, 2020. We will continue operations as they have been planned and no staff reductions are contemplated.

And now, the question I asked in the title of this piece must be asked and must be answered: is American Jewish History worth preserving and bringing to the public through a national museum?

As important as it is to preserve and tell the history of the Holocaust, is the history of the struggles and success of American Jewry also worth sharing with both Jews and non-Jews? My opinion is unequivocally: yes. We can’t understand the global Jewish story without it, and we can’t understand American history without it.

As this country and American Jews face critical questions and challenges in the coming months and years, how can we call upon the lessons of history to understand and contextualize where we are today and where we are going? What can we learn from America’s history that will help us to understand the frightening surge of antisemitism and violence against Jews and other communities? Can a retelling of America’s history of immigration and immigration policy, religious freedom and persecution, inclusion and exclusion, and other critical issues ever-present in our world today inform our society on a wise path forward? Is it helpful to have a home in the birthplace of our Nation for these stories? Should we have a central address which will allow people to come together across communities to discuss them?

You know where I stand: this institution has a critical role to play. Will American Jews – the philanthropists and the Amcha (everyone) – come through with the help the Museum needs to thrive and educate many generations in the years to come? The proof will be in whether this restructuring of the National Museum of American Jewish History will result in a momentous turning point.

Please join with us. Follow the Museum on social media. Tell your friends. Visit. Participate in a live feed of one of our excellent public programs. Encourage teachers in your community to use our OpenBook curriculum to bring American Jewish history to their classrooms. Host a Jewish American Heritage Month celebration in your community this May. And consider a donation in any amount. Small voices can become big voices; help us continue this important work. Let’s do it together.

Dr. Misha Galperin is Interim CEO, National Museum of American Jewish History.