Celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month by Visiting These Sites
May is Jewish American Heritage Month and that means it is a great time to learn while exploring. I describe my own background as “Jewish lite” because while both my parents are Jewish and all my ancestors hail from Eastern Europe, growing up my household was more spiritual than religious. A handful of key traditions were passed down, but we didn’t often follow the standard rituals. This has left me drawn to heritage sites that can teach me & help inform my ever-evolving Jewish identity.
Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Berkley, CA
The Magnes isn’t located directly on Berkley’s campus, so don’t look for it there. It is on Allston Way about a 5-minute walk from the edge of campus. Be sure to plan your visit in advance because their schedule does follow the semester schedule (open during Fall and Spring semesters but closed during winter break and summer break.) Admission is always free. I suggest allowing 90 minutes to see the collection.
As the exhibits rotate, you’ll be rewarded with a wide array of mediums, including paintings, photography, and historical/sociological exhibits. During a recent visit, I viewed paintings by Ori Sherman, photographs by Roman Vishniac, and an exhibit detailing the Jewish influence around the world through history as related to transportation, fashion, music and more.
Perhaps my favorite exhibits though, were tied to research by Berkley students. Berkley is well-known for having a “gourmet ghetto” (collection of high-quality restaurants). The term led a Berkley student to research food and identity in daily life. The result was a collection of kitchen items, linens and tableware used in Jewish rituals on display. A second exhibit was about Jewish identity in all corners of one’s life. To illustrate this a doctoral student put together a display of household items such as menorahs, torah arks, furniture, kitchenware and more.
This museum’s strength, in my opinion, lies in its diverse exhibits that were contemplative and still easy to understand.
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Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, GA
Congregation Mickve Israel was founded in 1733 by mostly Spanish and Portuguese immigrants. As the third oldest Jewish congregation in America, it will help visitors to leave their stereotypes behind. After all, when thinking about Jews in America, don’t most peoples’ minds go straight to the northeastern U.S? Many people don’t think of the roots of the Jewish faith in America being established in the South.
The congregation’s current sanctuary was built in 1878 and is a very rare example of gothic architecture being used on a synagogue. Conde Nast Traveler even named it one of the top 15 most beautiful synagogues in the world. Docent-led tours take place four times each day, Monday through Friday and are a mere $10 for adults.
If you think of New York and Ellis Island when you think about Jewish culture arriving in America, visit Savannah and be amazed.
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Ellis Island, New York, NY
Speaking of Ellis Island, there is no better place in America to hear the stories of the immigrants who helped build our nation. While the National Immigration Museum does not focus solely on Jewish immigrants, their role in this nation’s history is undeniable. Retrace America’s journey by following the steps of those who came here with nothing and became this nation’s foundation: our teachers, doctors, engineers, and homemakers.
Engraved spaces on the Wall of Honor (unveiled in 1990) were sold as a way to raise funds for the restoration of this former processing center. My own great-grandparents were processed into America on Ellis Island. Laying my hand over their names on the Wall of Honor sent me into waves of sobs. As a Jew who has spent most of my life living in the Bible Belt South, explaining to others what “Jewish” means, here I found family history and connection. The foundation of this country was also the foundation of my family. There is a strange full circle power in that.
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Weiner Holocaust Reflection and Resource Center, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Just as Black Americans don’t want their entire history distilled down to slavery, Jews don’t want our history to be limited to a discussion of the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust’s impact is too great for it not to be addressed at all.
The Craig and Barbara Weiner Holocaust Reflection and Resource Center is located at Nova Southeastern University and is part of their campus library.
The center’s claim to fame is their Interactive Survivor Biographies. Developed by the USC Shoah Foundation, this educational system allows visitors to speak with a virtual Holocaust survivor. Few facilities have this capability. There is a book of questions available (or you can pose an original one). You speak the question into the microphone and the keywords you uttered prompt a video testimony by a survivor to play.
I asked Mr. Pinchas Gutter how he felt about the ordinary German citizens who looked the other way during the rise of the Nazis. He said when the war ended, he was offered reparations and he refused them because he didn’t want “their blood money.” He didn’t want to have anything to do with Germany or the German people at all. Over the years, he has come to realize that every place has good people and “not-so-good people.” He acknowledges that he can’t judge an entire society on the behavior of some. His capacity for understanding and sympathy is humbling.
The Weiner Holocaust Reflection and Resource Center is open during the campus library’s hours seven days/week. Between its university association and the lifelong endowment that the Weiners arranged, the center will always be free to visit for anyone who wishes to learn more.
Lifelong learners make the best travelers, so consider adding some of these locations to your next travel itinerary.
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Erica Chatman is a freelance writer whose work often focuses on the art and culture she finds in various destinations. While she used to reside full-time in North Florida, she now travels full-time, often spending six months or a year in a new place. Her unusual lifestyle is documented on her blog, MrsHomeFree.com. Her previous work has been featured on PassionPassport.com, GoWorldTravel.com, WorldFootprints.com and on BudgetTravel.com.