Philly Jewish museum opens with stars and nostalgia

philadelphia  |  Her granddaughter at her elbow, 89-year-old Ruth Sarner-Libros walked slowly through the fourth floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History, drinking in every display.

Flashing a broad smile, Sarner-Libros said it was beyond anything she had imagined when she hosted the museum’s first board meeting back in 1974. It took two years to open the modest collection in a small space adjoining the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel in downtown Philadelphia.

Barbra Streisand (left), Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler celebrate the opening of the new American Jewish History museum on Nov. 13 in Philadelphia. photo/jta/mike coppola/getty images for national museum of american jewish history

Now, after a decade-long, $150 million campaign, those artifacts have been elevated to a sparkling 100,000-square-foot home less than a block away in the city’s Independence Mall.

“It’s such a significant location, the exhibits are so impressive, the whole way it’s put together, it’s just an overwhelming experience to see a dream come true, to have a child of my imagination become a reality,” said Sarner-Libros, board president emerita.

In honor of the accomplishment, hundreds of people, many of them donors, joined Sarner-Libros in a weekend of celebration Nov. 13 and 14 headlined by Vice President Joe Biden, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and entertainer Bette Midler.

Founding members jump-started the festivities with discussions of the museum’s architecture and how freedoms of the Jewish people have changed throughout American history.

The next night, about 1,000 local and national supporters, stars and dignitaries gathered for a gala in a mammoth tent that spanned the block outside the building. Despite the steep admission — individual tickets cost from $1,500 to $5,000 — the museum couldn’t accommodate about 200 would-be revelers.

Seinfeld emceed the swanky kosher dinner. The crowd ate up his Jewish-tailored shtick as he joked about everything from his mother who couldn’t figure out a cell phone to the undignified nature of bathroom stalls.

As Midler took the stage, she jokingly wondered why the museum was located in Philadelphia rather than New York, where she quipped that “there are more Jews in my building than in this town.”

Her performance, characteristically peppered with humor and profanity, was tailored to the theme of the night. She sang only songs written by Jewish artists, beginning with her signature “Friends” and ending with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Barbra Streisand created a buzz as an attendee, but she neither spoke nor sang. Instead, she sat front and center with her husband, James Brolin, with security guards nearby to keep away fans.

The next day, a chorus of about 50 shofar sounders heralded the start of the dedication ceremony. Biden addressed a crowd of about 2,000 gathered on the mall, noting that although the museum focuses on the Jewish people, “they’re American stories above all else. I can think of no other city that would be a fitting showcase for them.”

Other speakers included George Ross, co-chair of the board of trustees and chairman of the capital campaign; Pennsylvania’s outgoing governor, Ed Rendell; and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

Following the ceremony, the museum opened to those who had reserved tickets, some coming from as far as Seattle.

At every corner, docents called attention to particularly interesting artifacts — a telegram about the planned annihilation of the Jews during World War II, or passports from immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Mixed in the maze of information were laminated sheets of Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers to pick up and Old World clothes for kids to try on.

A small crowd congregated in the last exhibit, which invited visitors to post responses to questions lining the circular room: Should religion play a role in American politics? Are Jews white?

“Our religion is based on the constant questioning of things, so I think it’s brilliant that they created this space for people to think and question,” said University of Delaware freshman Jessie Leider, 18, as she posted her opinion on why intermarriage is a threat to religious communities. “It’s an ongoing religion. It’s not just the history. It’s the future of our people.”

Jewish Exponent Executive Editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.