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National Museum of American Jewish History

Posted on Monday, August 10, 2015

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Preserving, exploring, and celebrating the history of Jews in America


The History

While the National Museum of American Jewish History dates back to just 1976, the real reason as to why it exists and why it’s located here in Philadelphia can really be traced all the way back to the beginning of Philadelphia’s History.  Philadelphia founder William Penn established Pennsylvania as a colony of religious tolerance, where all were welcome to live and worship freely.  While it is likely that Philadelphia has had a Jewish presence since its inception, the first evidence of a formal Jewish community in Philadelphia dates back to 1740.  It was in 1740, when Jewish settler Nathan Levy applied to Thomas Penn, Royal Proprietor of Pennsylvania, for a plot of land to bury his child in accordance to Jewish ritual.  The result of that request was the creation of a Jewish cemetery on Spruce Street in Philadelphia between 8th and 9th streets.  Right around the time of the creation of this cemetery also marks the creation of the Jewish congregation Mikveh Israel, which is now the name that is also given to the cemetery.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Early religious services were very modest and would often be conducted in the private homes of congregants.  As the congregation grew they began to move to rented quarters throughout the city before building their first Synagogue on the 300 block of Cherry Street in 1782.  During the American Revolutionary War, Mikveh Israel became known as the “Synagogue of the Revolution” as many of its congregants supported the movement for American Independence, many joined the revolution while others worked to finance it.  
By 1976, Mikveh Israel, by then among the oldest and most historic Jewish Congregations in America, moved into a new Synagogue right on Independence Mall.  The “Synagogue of the Revolution” would use its brand new synagogue to help celebrate America’s bicentennial.  The new Synagogue building incorporated within it a small museum to pay tribute the important history of Jews in America.  The new museum becane very popular as demonstrated not only by great attendance in the museum, but also by the many gifted artifacts the museum received that helped to explain the Jewish experience in America.  
Soon, the museum’s modest space within Mikveh Israel grew far too small to hold all the visitors and their vast collection of artifacts and plans began to move into a larger space.  In 2005 it was announced that the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) would be moving to a grand new building just half a block from Mikveh Isreal on the corner of 5th and Market Streets.  The new building, a glass a terra-cotta structure designed by James Polshek, situated less than a block from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, opened to the public in 2010 and has been a staple on Independence Mall ever since.
Exterior of the new National Museum of American Jewish History

What to See

 The NMAJH has a number of core exhibits that highlight the diverse backgrounds, expectations, and experiences of Jews who immigrated to the United States.  An exhibit titled “Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880” tells the story of the first Jews to settle in America, including the founders of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.  Another exhibit titled “Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945” tells the story of the mass migration of millions of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th century and their effect on the American Jewish community and the nation as a whole.  Using historical objects, period environments and cutting-edge interactive technology, this exhibit shows how Jewish society integrated into American society at the beginning of the 20th century.
The exhibit “Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945 – Today” tells the stories of the post WWII period and the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in America.  The final core exhibit is comprised of an “Only in America Hall of Fame” which tells the story of 18 Jewish Americans and their remarkable achievements.   Among those included in the exhibit include Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Irving Berlin and Steven Spielberg.  
The NMAJH also always features a special exhibition that is only on display for a limited time.  Running until October 11, 2015 a current exhibit focuses on Jewish involvement in the LGBT civil rights movement titled “The Pursuit of happiness.”  The exhibit is part of the larger 50th anniversary celebration taking place on Independence Mall this summer which pays tribute to first LGBT civil rights march which took place in Philadelphia 50 years ago in 1965.  Another current exhibit focuses on the work of Richard Avedon, a groundbreaking fashion and portrait photographer.
Interior of National Museum of American Jewish History

Insider Tips

Nearly every museum has a gift shop but the Museum Store at the NMAJH is unique in the sense that it can be a destination itself.  Aside from your standard museum mementos, the NMAJH Museum Store features all kinds of unique and interesting items.  From designer jewelry to home décor, there is a lot to see.  There are gifts designed for bar mitzvahs and bat mitvehs, as well as necessities for Jewish holiday celebrations.  There is even a Ketubah gallery that produces traditional Jewish wedding contracts to be used in Jewish wedding ceremonies!
The NMAJH also offers educational programs designed for students of all ages and the NMAJH makes a great location for a field trip.  A trip to the NMAJH can make a great compliment to a field trip with The Constitutional Walking Tour.  To make it a stress free experience for teachers, The Constitutional Walking tours offers a slightly adjusted tour which can be made to end directly at the NMAJH.  The NMAJH is also directly next door the Philadelphia Bourse which is a great location for students to have lunch while on a field trip to historic Philadelphia!

How to Get There

Guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour will find the NMAJH very easy to reach by foot as the museum is located just one block south of the National Constitution Center, where all of our tours begin and end.  The NMAJH is also directly adjacent to the 5th Street Station on the Market Frankford line which makes the museum quite easy to reach through public transportation as well.  Those who wish to drive to the museum will find it quite easy to find parking as numerous parking garages are nearby including the Bourse Garage less than a block away.  


Tues-Fri: 10:00am – 5:00 pm
Sat and Sun: 10:00am – 5:30pm
(Note: These hours are subject to change and you may want to contact the National Museum of America Jewish History to confirm)

Additional Information

101 South Independence Mall East,
Philadelphia PA 19106

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