More than 1,000 donors and others looked on as the new National Museum of American Jewish History officially became a reality in an opening ceremony along a sun-splashed Independence Mall on Sunday.
The ceremony, which lasted little more than an hour, featured Vice President Biden and others, plus 50 shofar blowers, members of the Philadelphia Singers, and a rabbi who affixed a mezuzah - a handwritten prayer sheathed in a decorative casing - to the side of the museum's front doorway.
The ceremony was hosted by NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, who cut her journalistic teeth on the very site of the museum at Fifth and Market Streets when the former building there housed the KYW radio studios.
The early-afternoon proceeding featured speakers who addressed the different facets of the institution.
"I see it as an institution that celebrates the diaspora's past and illuminates the contributions made by Americans in our shared future," Biden said. The exhibition's narratives, he said, "are Jewish stories, to be sure, but they are American stories, above all else."
Said Mayor Nutter, who averred that the museum is about a struggle and remaking that is typically American: "Nowhere else but in Philadelphia - in the cradle of liberty - can this story be told so well or so honestly."
Gov. Rendell spoke of the decision his parents made when he was a youngster not to provide him or his brother, Robert, with Jewish religious training. But, he said, his father told them: "I never want you to forget that you are Jews, I never want you to forget your heritage . . . the struggles Jewish people have taken for thousands of years."
The governor said he had "tried to live up to my dad's words. . . . Most of all, I've tried to tell the story because it's a great story - it's a story of values, it's a story of principles, it's a story of commitment." To the museum's supporters, he said: "The beauty of what you've done here is, you've made sure the story will always be told."
A host of other politicians were among members of the audience, which included much of the museum administration and those who worked to raise the $150 million needed for the project - and, who, in fact, raised $4 million more than that, with the addition of two major contributions last week. This is the only museum dedicated to the 350 years of Jewish history in America.
At the ceremony, Michael Rosenzweig, museum president and chief executive officer, announced that the director's chair would be named for Gwen Goodman, the museum's emeritus executive director, who spent much of the last 10 years planning the museum. Also on the dais were the cochairs, George M. Ross and Ronald Rubin; several speakers alluded to Sidney and Caroline Kimmel, major donors.
The audience sat on white folding chairs on the grassy stretch of Independence Mall to watch the ceremony. They looked to a large screen for a simulcast of Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a notable Jewish author and scholar, affixing the mezuzah to the museum doorpost a half-block away.
In Deuteronomy, a verse commands the Hebrews to post mezuzahs on the doorposts of their dwellings with the prayer - "a call to listen and understand we are all one . . . to care for the earth and teach values to our children's children," the rabbi said before taking up a screwdriver to affix the mezuzah to the building.
The mezuzah was designed by San Francisco artist Aimee Golant "to capture the design elements of the museum," Rosenzweig said after the ceremony. Its casing features a flame, like the museum's logo, plus small pieces of terra cotta.
The museum, which opens to the public Nov. 26, may have more than one mezuzah in the planning; many Jews put the sheathed scrolls on doorposts throughout their homes, not just at the front portal. "The affixing of a mezuzah is one of the most ancient traditions in Judaism," Rosenzweig said, "and while this is not a dwelling place, this is an institution that preserves and transmits tradition."
After the ceremony, the attendees went into the museum to tour its four floors of exhibits led by docents and staff members. Among them was James Polshek, the building's architect. For him, seeing it brimming was a delight. "It's a little bit like a body that's unconscious and, upon an act of resuscitation, comes alive," he said. "It's almost like blood flowing through the veins and arteries when you see people move through it."
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.