New York City is home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in the world. As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that the city is home to numerous institutions dedicated to documenting one aspect or another of the Jewish experience. For instance, there is the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s Wagner Park. It is one of the more somber institutions of its kind. That is because the Museum of Jewish Heritage focuses on the Holocaust.
How Did New York City’s Jewish Community Come to Be?
The establishment of New York City’s Jewish community provides useful background for the establishment of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Generally speaking, large-scale Jewish immigration to the United States is divided up into three distinct phases. First, Sephardic Jews started making their way over as early as the mid-17th century. They were soon outnumbered by their Ashkenazi counterparts, but their customs continued to dominate for quite some time. Second, German Jews started making their way over in the first half of the 19th century. Post-Napoleonic German states were oppressive towards much of their population. Even so, they singled out German Jews for mistreatment. Third, Eastern European Jews started making their way over after 1880. Once again, they were motivated by mistreatment. After all, pogroms continued throughout the Russian Empire up until the fall of the Russian monarchy. Subsequently, the White Army continued to carry out pogroms during the Russian Civil War.
Each of the three waves has left a lasting influence on New York City’s Jewish community. For instance, the synagogues of the Sephardic Jews took no interest in their members’ economic activities. That doesn’t sound particularly striking. However, it is interesting to note that this was a sharp departure from their Old World counterparts, which were very much involved in such things in those times. Meanwhile, the German Jews founded the American Jewish Committee, which has been known to combat discrimination against not just Jews but also other people. Similarly, the Eastern European Jews were very involved with Yiddish theatre, which became popular enough to see Broadway crossovers.
What Does the Museum of Jewish Heritage Focus Upon?
There are NYC-based museums that offer general overviews of the Jewish experience. Despite its name, the Museum of Jewish Heritage isn’t one of them. Instead, it is focused on the Holocaust, which is the single most consequential event in the Jewish experience of modern times. The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s mission states it is intent on educating visitors on how Jews lived before, during, and after said events. Something that has become more important than ever because the Holocaust is fading out of living memory.
With that said, the Museum of Jewish Heritage came into existence through a long, challenging path. For context, the space was set aside for a Holocaust memorial in New York City just a short while after the Second World War in October of 1997. However, the Museum of Jewish Heritage wasn’t opened until September of 1997. It wasn’t as though there were no efforts to come up with a suitable proposal. The issue is that these efforts either failed to receive the official go-ahead or failed to secure the necessary funding.
Eventually, New York City Mayor Edward Koch established a task force to create a museum rather than a monument in July of 1981. In this, he was spurred on by the increased U.S. awareness of the Holocaust in the 1970s, which resulted in the decision to create the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1979. There was a real sense of concern that New York City still lacked a Holocaust memorial at that time even though it was widely acknowledged as the cultural center of the Jewish people in the country.
The government provided the land. Other than that, the task force expected the funding for the project to come from private sources. The fundraising process wasn’t the smoothest. Reputedly, failures in this regard came close to killing the proposal like they had killed its predecessors. Fortunately, there was enough collective will to see the Holocaust memorial built this time around. Thanks to that, the ground-breaking happened in October of 1994, thus enabling the opening in September of 1997.
What Can You Expect From the Museum of Jewish Heritage?
As mentioned earlier, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is meant to educate. Specifically, it wants to educate a wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. As a result, while it tells the story of the Jewish people, it seeks to do so in a way that makes it relatable to everyone. Furthermore, the Museum of Jewish Heritage doesn’t just treat its subjects as passive victims. Instead, it does its best to treat them as real individuals with real agency, who could still show tenacity, cleverness, and other admirable characteristics within the constraints of the calamity that befell them.
Like other institutions, the Museum of Jewish Heritage changes its exhibitions from time to time. There are some constants. For instance, Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones remains a living memorial where people can think about what they have seen. Similarly, the collection of bios and photos of Holocaust survivors makes it much easier to connect with them as real individuals than otherwise possible. Meanwhile, the other exhibits continue to address the museum’s mission from different angles in order to offer different insights. One excellent example is the showcase of Boris Lurie’s artworks, which weren’t just his way of documenting his experiences but also his act of self-affirmation as a Holocaust survivor.
Those who want to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage should know it tends to open from 10 am to 5 pm on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays plus from 10 am to 8 pm on Thursdays. Please note the exact schedule can differ from this, which is why it is a good idea for interested individuals to check the exact times before making plans. Admission is $18 for an adult, $12 for a student, and free for a child under the age of 12. Certain groups such as seniors, military veterans, and active military members are also eligible for the discounted price of $12.